Sep 152016

This article on UDC’s food system work was originally posted on FuturePerfect.

The University of the District of Columbia is leading the charge in transforming the food system in a city challenged with high levels of poverty, obesity, and population growth.

“Nature will be just fine. The question is whether it’ll be just fine with us or without us. Nature might just decide to jettison us.” So says Sabine O’Hara, dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to a class of eager area residents who have come to learn about sustainable urban farming. Through CAUSES, O’Hara is working to transform every aspect of the food system in Washington, D.C.—from cultivation, preparation, and distribution to food waste management—in a way that provides food security for city residents but does not compromise Earth’s systems or the ability of our species to survive. As impossible as this sounds, CAUSES may just offer a model for creating sustainable urban food systems in the constrained future ahead.

The University of the District of Columbia’s rooftop farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Cultivating a New Urban Food Path

While cultivation is just one component of the food cycle, it is perhaps the most visible one, and CAUSES has experimented with a wide variety of techniques to get as much food as possible out of the high-priced landscape of the nation’s capital. As O’Hara explains, “We are not a city like Baltimore or Detroit where urban agriculture is the new big thing. D.C. is not emptying out, like it is there. D.C. is growing by a rate of 1,500 per month.”

Right on campus is the largest rooftop farm in the city—20,000 square feet—growing plump Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes and crisp red-stemmed Swiss Chard along the edges (areas of the roof that have the structural integrity to handle larger crops) as well as greens, flowers, and sedum in the interior sections (for insulation and water capture benefits). Much of this rooftop produce—grown mostly by volunteers—gets distributed to UDC’s faculty and staff through a community-supported agriculture program and to D.C. food banks as donations.

Swiss chard growing in UDC’s rooftop farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Swiss chard growing in UDC’s rooftop farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Sustainable Agri-experiments

Beyond the campus, at the end of the Green Metro Line, is the 143-acre Firebird Farm. Here UDC is experimenting with a wide selection of crops and techniques to sustainably provide food for a growing city: 1.5 acres of sweet potatoes, an Asian pear orchard, a more-sustainable dryland rice variety, a cluster of half-acre allotment gardens available to entrepreneurial D.C. residents. There’s even a large garden of “ethnic crops,” growing uncommon and highly nutritious vegetables like garden eggs, ghost peppers, gbomas, kitely, jamma jamma, and jute for the city’s significant immigrant population.

CAUSES dean Sabine O’Hara describes the UDC rooftop farm to Sustainable Urban Agriculture students. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
CAUSES dean Sabine O’Hara describes the UDC rooftop farm to Sustainable Urban Agriculture students. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Nearby there are also greenhouses with aquaponics, producing tilapia in high-tech, low-energy-demanding aerated tanks, with the fish waste water fertilizing greenhouses full of greens and veggies. But tilapia sells for little, so O’Hara’s team recently installed a smoking facility. “Why sell tilapia for a dollar a pound when you can smoke it and sell it for 12 dollars a pound?” O’Hara asks the class. As this pragmatic stance shows, if the numbers can’t be made to work, neither can the farm.

Hoop house at UDC’s Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Hoop house at UDC’s Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Koshihikari rice growing on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Koshihikari rice growing on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

There are challenges, though. For example, the rooftop tomatoes had to be harvested green last year as forecasts of high winds could have turned them into dangerous projectiles threatening unsuspecting pedestrians below. And as a city-funded university, navigating how to sell produce without bumping up against non-compete rules has not been easy. Currently, a lot of the food is donated, which helps with food security but does not help with sustaining the farm.

Firebird Farm Director Mchezaji “Che” Axum teaches students how to double dig garden beds. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Firebird Farm Director Mchezaji “Che” Axum teaches students how to double dig garden beds. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Food in the City

O’Hara is not just focused on growing crops on the campus and farm. She is taking food exactly where it is most needed. The goal is to build an “Urban Food Hub” in each of the city’s eight wards, particularly the poorer ones. And with five already established, CAUSES is well on its way.

These food hubs include farms, hydroponics systems, and food preparation facilities. They are helping to train a new generation of agricultural entrepreneurs who can provide healthy food in a city where too many neighborhoods are food deserts. O’Hara notes that 88 percent of the 520 D.C. food retailers offer no fresh produce; in Ward 7—where overweight and obesity rates have now reached 72 percent—only three full-service grocery stores serve 71,000 residents.

UDC president Ronald Mason and his wife Belinda DeCuir Mason pose in front of CAUSES Food Truck. Photo (CC BY-SA): Leslie Malone.

By creating food hubs, CAUSES can take a leading role in providing new skills, jobs, and healthy sustainable food to the people who need them the most. One of its newest endeavors is a business-incubator kitchen. Here food-safety-certified D.C. residents can get access to a commercial kitchen, standardize their recipes, and create and market new food products—to stores, restaurants, and markets. “We’re not running food hubs as businesses, but as business incubators. Our goal is to spin off businesses,” explains O’Hara.

CAUSES has even set up a food truck, riding on the current craze for these mobile mini-restaurants in DC. But like all of UDC’s efforts, this too serves as an educational and training opportunity—“a classroom on wheels,” says O’Hara.

“Food Systems Must Be Circular”

O’Hara doesn’t stop with the growing, preparing and distributing of food, but makes it clear that agriculture waste streams must also be captured and feed the next cycle of production. Solar power is used to pump groundwater for Firebird Farm, and drip irrigation reduces total water usage. Wastewater is managed with a variety of technologies—cisterns, rain gardens, even rice paddies. Composting transforms food waste into new soil, and a bio-diesel press converts used cooking oil into diesel fuel.

Solar power is used to pump groundwater for the fish farm and crops on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Solar power is used to pump groundwater for the fish farm and crops on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

With more people becoming urbanites, if cities can cultivate, prepare, and distribute more of their own food this will be a major step in making agricultural systems more sustainable, including reducing food-related greenhouse gas emissions and closing nutrient cycles. Moreover, if cities can localize their economies rather than depending on just one or two industries, they will be more resilient—a valuable trait in the less stable future that’s at our doorstep.

Perhaps with innovations coming from such a prominent place as the city’s university, and with the food and farming entrepreneurs that CAUSES is nurturing and the food businesses it is helping to create, Washington, D.C., will become America’s capital of sustainable food production. O’Hara is doing her best to make that happen.

Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.

This article was originally posted on FuturePerfect.

 September 15, 2016  Posted by on September 15, 2016 Tagged with: , , , ,  No Responses »
Jul 182015

peachesI made jam with my son yesterday—from a mass of little peaches and crab apples we gleaned from a local school garden (it was either us or the squirrels as few urban dwellers connect fruit on trees with fruit in their bellies).

And I have to say that this jam was delicious. I’m sure if I bought it in a store I’d think it’s just pretty good. But knowing that I made it, and that it was essentially free—both in the ecological and financial sense (minus the little bit of electricity, lemon and sugar I used)—made this jam some of the best I’ve ever eaten! Plus the fact that my son, Ayhan, helped me cut the fruit (his first attempt with a knife, albeit with my hand on it too) and pour in the sugar, added some fun to the process too.

My recipe is based closely off the advice and instructions in this great blog post for making a small batch of jam from The Kitchn, but I didn’t follow it very meticulously, figuring there was a lot of room for improvisation in jam making.

cutting fruitIn short, I cut up about 10 small peaches, leaving the skin on (I didn’t want to waste anything), grated 12 very small crab apples (I grated them as they were too small to easily cut), threw in half a cup of sugar (the recipe suggested more but I wanted to err on the side of too little rather than too much) and squeezed in half a lemon (half of what the recipe called for but was still too much as there’s a lot of natural pectin—and sourness—in crab apples).

I then cooked it—in a wide pan—on a medium high heat until the fruit boiled for about 10 minutes and was thick in consistency. Towards the end I added some shakes of some ground cinnamon (this blog post from Northwest Edible Life has a great flavor guide on what spices to add to enhance jam). Then, once it was finished cooking, I pureed the jam with an immersion blender to make it a bit smoother and break up the skins better. And that’s it! I filled up a big jar with jam and put it in the refrigerator (I didn’t glean enough to consider the challenges of true canning—but put most in the refrigerator and froze a bit for later. As I can already attest, the jam is perfect for toast, pancakes, or even straight from the jar. Enjoy!

Step By Step (for next time I make it):

cooking fruit1) Glean a few pounds of fruit

2) Wash fruit

3) Cut fruit into small pieces removing damaged bits (or grate in the case of really small fruits)

4) Put in pan and add 1/3rd cup of sugar and mash with a potato masher

5) Squeeze in a quarter of a lemon

6) Bring to boil on a medium heat and boil for about 10 minutes (until a thick jam-like consistency is achieved)

7) Add cinnamon (or other preferred spices) while jam is boiling

8) Let cool and put into jar. Enjoy!

 July 18, 2015  Posted by on July 18, 2015 Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Dec 012013
Bowl full of crickets--before they were added to the guacamole (Image by Erik Assadourian)

Bowl full of crickets–before they were added to the guacamole (Photo by Erik Assadourian)

The media is now regularly filled with articles about how insects are part of the future of our food. And for good reason—the Earth is rapidly changing, population projections are being revised upward, there is no real progress on curbing runaway climate change, and our future is looking more and more like a dystopian science-fiction novel.

Grain prices will almost certainly go up in the future and so will the price of meat, as livestock depend on these grain supplies. Insects, though, offer a good alternative—healthy, easy to raise, and much more efficient in processing vegetable matter into animal protein (crickets use one-twelfth the feed that cattle use to produce an equal amount of protein). The United Nations even released a report this year advocating an accelerated shift to bug consumption in the west.

But typically when discussing bugs, media stories are served with a large portion of amused disgust. (Just look at the picture from the above-referenced Sierra Club magazine and BBC News articles: a Lice Cream truck, seriously?!?) Part of this is cultural, another part is smart business: shock and entertain the audience and they’ll keep reading.

Jenny Dorne of WJLA filming Alida Maandag while preparing bug cuisine. (Photo by Erik Assadourian)

Jenny Dorne of WJLA filming Alida Maandag while preparing bug cuisine. (Photo by Erik Assadourian)

So it was funny to see the creation of this disgust first hand at a bug-eating reception at the Dutch Embassy this past summer. One journalist, Jenny Dorne of WJLA, couldn’t fathom eating bugs and was captivated by Alida Maandag, the wife of Dutch entomologist Marcel Dicke—a leading proponent of incorporating insects into the western diet. Maandag quietly ate several crickets for the journalist while she videotaped the whole thing, scripting each bite to get the most shock value. Meanwhile, Mrs. Dicke stood there complying with a bemused look on her face, clearly thinking “what’s all the fuss?”

Perhaps this will be the way that bug eating gets attention and eventually goes from strange eccentricity to fun food event to normal part of the diet. It certainly was interesting to watch how people reacted to the insect cuisine at the event—the cricket guacamole, the cicadas and asparagus on a stick, the mealworm pancakes. Again mostly with good-humored disgust, but as most guests realized when they tasted the bugs (if they tried them—Ms. Dorne outright refused), bugs don’t taste like much when integrated into a complex recipe.

As Dr. Marcel Dicke and others have pointed out, the easiest way to integrate insects into the western diet will be through processed foods where the distinct crunch and taste of bugs is lost and just the healthful and sustainable source of protein is preserved.

And that has already moved forward to some degree in the Netherlands—at specialty grocery stores shoppers can buy freezedried bug patties (like other frozen burger patties, whether hamburger, soy, Quorn, or chicken). At the event there were even samples of Chapul, a new energy bar for sale in the U.S. that has cricket bits in it. And it was pretty good—though no bugs could be seen or tasted at all, which was probably the point.

All of this imagines a factory farmed bug future where agribusiness grows and sells insect protein at a large scale to fill the processed foods that now mostly have ground up chicken, pig and beef bits in them. Certainly an improvement, ecologically speaking, but considering how unhealthy processed foods are—filled with salt, sugar, preservatives and artificial flavors and served in unsustainable and often toxic packaging—maybe not so large a step forward as we could take.

Bowl of mealworms, awaiting being added to the pancakes made by Daniella Martin of (Image by Erik Assadourian)

Bowl of mealworms, awaiting being added to the pancakes made by Daniella Martin of (Photo by Erik Assadourian)

During the event there was long discussion of a future of factory-farmed bugs—which Dr. Dicke assured the audience was just fine as insects like crowded conditions and their diseases don’t easily migrate to humans like the diseases that affect current livestock do. But can’t we do better? Massive amounts of waste will still be created—will it pour down rivers like chicken, pig, and cow manure currently does?

In colonies of millions of bugs, conditions will be ripe to spread new insect diseases, which may in turn mean continuing reliance on huge amounts of antibiotics or fungicides for our new livestock (even if there’s no risk of these diseases spreading to humans). And perhaps worst of all, the industrial model, with its concentration of profits, will continue—where Big Ag can employ small numbers of underpaid laborers to maintain their billions of bugs.

The most exciting moment for me at this event came when Dr. Dicke mentioned in passing that 20,000 households in Thailand make part of their living from raising crickets or other bugs. Now THIS is the future I’d like to see. Everyone can raise a fish tank full of crickets off their own food scraps and rotting plant matter found near their house and probably generate a free pound of animal protein every month or so—just enough to live healthy and to lower overall household costs (while having a positive ecological effect as factory-farmed meat is displaced by freegan crickets). This report details small-scale insect farming in Thailand at length. I could imagine as the US consumer economy implodes, lots of American entrepreneurs will turn to small-scale farming (as is happening in Greece today) and bugs may become part of their crop mix.

It is an intriguing question: how does one go about raising a small quantity of crickets for personal consumption: what are the hours of work time needed to sustain your flock? The inputs? Will food scraps and foraged bits of yard waste from your and neighbors’ yards or local parks be enough or like larger-scale cricket farmers would one need to buy chicken feed (which would change the financial equation dramatically)? With hamburger at just $3.50 a pound, small-scale production of crickets probably can’t pay for itself right now (not if time costs are factored in and environmental externalities aren’t), but once food is no longer easily or cheaply purchased at the local grocery store, bug farmers may be some of the best equipped to survive food shortages. That’s food for thought, even if you have to catch it first.

 December 1, 2013  Posted by on December 1, 2013 Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »