With COVID-19 restrictions on events and gatherings beginning to relax, Washington, D.C.’s urban agriculture sector is starting to gradually open back up to the local community. If you’re looking to get involved, you will have plenty of opportunities since D.C.’s agricultural network consists of an estimated 27 urban farms, 66 community gardens, and 62 farmer’s markets. This network continues to grow and blossom under the leadership of organizations and individuals hard at work to provide locally-grown healthy food to D.C. residents. 

During my research of urban agriculture in the District, I had the opportunity to speak with Scott Kratz, the Vice President of the D.C. non-profit, Building Bridges Across the River – or BBAR, for short. BBAR is based in Southeast D.C., where they run a network of seven urban farms, six of which are maintained/managed in partnership with other organizations. To Kratz, these partnerships have been vital to the success of their projects, as each partner brings “something different and valuable to the table”, whether that be land, financial resources, or their own expertise. This model has been successful for BBAR thus far, with each urban farm being uniquely set up to serve different community needs and priorities. From a medicinal herb-focused project at a church that addresses community health concerns to utilizing farms/gardens as learning and therapeutic spaces, BBAR’s partners and projects are a perfect example of the wide variety of forms that urban agriculture in the District can take.

Taken at THEARC Farm in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Beck Harlan)

When asked what kind of work goes into these spaces, Kratz stated that first and foremost – listening and open communication between partners is critically important to a project’s success: “This is not ‘one-size-fits-all’, we need to make sure that we are understanding the needs and resources…Listening allows each group to bring their own expertise and expectations to the table.” A large component of collaborative work is learning while on the job and acknowledging and adapting from missteps to make partnerships stronger. When it comes to communicating with partners, Kratz says that he’s learned to clearly define the roles and responsibilities each party is expected to fulfill and to build in an evaluation process for meeting these goals to address if certain components are working, and if not – why, and how can they work together to fix it?

It’s this conscientious communication that has helped foster trust between BBAR and the organizations that they work with, with Kratz stating: “Trust is about shared experiences over time and fulfilling your promises – particularly when working in communities where there is a large trust deficit.” This trust deficit is relevant to Southeast D.C., where residents experience disproportionate rates of food insecurity (>50% of the population according to the Sustainable D.C. Plan 2.0) due in part to a lack of access to full-service grocery stores, and thus, fresh fruits and vegetables. Urban farms and community gardens in these communities can function to give residents expanded options for healthy food, but they don’t have the capacity to solve food access and security issues. 

BBAR, and other organizations like it, are aware of this, and utilize partnerships to diversify their function so they can meet some of these needs. A shining example of this might be the Farm at Kelly Miller (located in Ward 7), which is managed by the organization Dreaming Out Loud who partners with City Blossoms to provide education and outreach programming. By combining their resources and expertise, they have more capacity for managing the agricultural component, while adding educational and youth development opportunities to strengthen the community components of their work with programs like “Mighty Greens” and cooking workshops. 

Taken at THEARC Farm in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: Beck Harlan)

Diversification of function for urban farms has become increasingly more relevant with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the lives of many. At a time of increased community need, some farms have struggled to meet capacity due to not being able to safely have volunteers during peak growing seasons. But as Kratz says: “The magic word of the pandemic was pivot”. This ‘pivoting’ was seen as some D.C. urban farms have become urban “food hubs” distributing meals to residents, thus extending their resources to serve the greater community in impactful ways. BBAR partnered with DC Central Kitchen and the National Capital Area Food Bank to transition their main campus in Ward 8 into a food distribution site to feed community members. The main campus has also recently become a vaccination site – so far, vaccinating over 5,000 people. 

Looking ahead, it would seem that urban agriculture in D.C. has a great capacity for growth. D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment recently established the Office of Urban Agriculture that is headed by Director Kate Lee, an experienced urban farmer, to manage programs and initiatives that seek to break down the many barriers that District farmers face. While many have been hit hard by the events of the past year, organizations like BBAR are optimistic about a future in which they can continue to expand their programs to serve an even greater number of people in their communities. 

I would like to thank Scott Kratz for his willingness to share his perspective with me and the Alliance team. BBAR has weekly open hours for volunteers on Wednesday from 11 am – 3 pm, and their Spring CSA program begins in June and offers affordable family shares at $20 per week – and reduced or no cost to those who qualify for benefits such as SNAP or ProducePlus.