Cultivating Better Urban Food Systems

From by Sarah Small
Cultivating Better Urban Food Systems

The first panel of the Food Tank summit, “Cultivating Better Urban Food Systems,” featured a group of advocates for changing where we grow our foods and how we think about the origin of our food.  Washington, D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh stressed how a combination of ambitious legislation and cooperative efforts has dramatically improved children’s nutrition and their knowledge of the importance of healthy food. She said that at this point they’re “doing more locally.” 

Dennis Dimick, the Executive Environment Editor at National Geographic, moderated the panel, and started the conversation by recalling his own experiences growing up on a farm. “We are putting food production close to where people live, and reconnecting people with the food they eat.” 

Che Axum, Director of the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education in the College of Agriculture and Gardening Education at the University of the District of Columbia, echoed the call to bring food production to where people live, even if that means planting gardens on city rooftops.  At the only urban land-grant university in the country, Axum is in charge of a huge green roof campaign that provides training, education, and demonstrations on the "farm.” Axum's mission is to “see urban production advance in D.C.,” and his goal is to have “community-shared and -supported farms” throughout the nation. 

Sharing Axum’s passion for urban farming is Morgan Morris, partner and Head Garden Coach at Love and Carrots. She is teaching people how to grow their own produce. Love and Carrots was founded with a mission of “[integrating] the garden into the kitchen, being hands-on with the customers, and making sure the garden is being used." Morris said there is a knowledge gap for people who want to grow food, do right by their children, and be nutritional and healthy. This gap has led to an increased demand for garden coaches.

Thomas Forster, of EcoAgriculture Partner, emphasized the importance of policies that create sustainable cities.  He called for increased integrated planning that combines the efforts of rural and urban agriculture. "Cities alone cannot feed themselves,” he said.

Ivy Ken, a George Washington University professor, and partner with the University’s Urban Sustainability, also discussed the importance of policy implementation as it relates to providing nutritional food to school lunch programs. Ken stated that the “biggest obstacle of having healthy, nutritious, and sustainable food is that we think it's normal for companies to profit from children’s meals.” 

Policy and Strategic Partnership Director for the National Farm to School Network, Helen Dombalis, reinforced Ken’s comments by focusing on the need to create farm-to-school policies. Dombalis said the three factors involved in ‘farm-to-school’ are school gardens, education, and local procurement of produce. The payoff for these programs is big. "When children are involved in farm-to-school programs, they eat more servings of fruit and vegetables,” she said.

Haley Burns, a George Washington University senior, is a member of the University’s Urban Food Task Force. She and fellow students cultivate a university garden, donating all of the produce to Miriam's Kitchen, an organization that provides meals and social services to chronically homeless persons in Washington, D.C.  For the students, these efforts are eye-opening. "Our main problem is the lack of intimacy or knowledge with our food. People don’t understand where their food comes from, and thus don’t understand how it is produced."

The panel's last speaker was instantly recognizable to most in the audience: winner of the James Beard Foundation Medal, restauranteur, head judge on television's Top Chef, and passionate food activist, Chef Tom Colicchio. As a special guest at the Food Tank Summit, Colicchio recalled his own experiences with urban farming in Elizabeth N.J., watching his grandfather grow vegetables in five-gallon containers. He continues that tradition today, growing his own produce in New York City. Colicchio applauded the bounty that comes from small urban plots, but stressed the need to take the concept to the next level.  He said “we need to make a business out of providing fresh local fruits and vegetables.