ECO City Grows Great Food, Farms and Farmers

Caroline Selle, Managing Editor of the Hyattsville Life & Times | 8/13/2014, 2 p.m.
When ECO City Farms was launched in 2009, the nonprofit was located on a small two acre patch of land ...

When ECO City Farms was launched in 2009, the nonprofit was located on a small two acre patch of land in Edmonston, Maryland, about a mile outside of Washington, D.C. Since then, the organization has expanded to a second site in Bladensburg, increased its programming, and grown its staff.

The nonprofit’s success is a testament to its ability to fill an underserved niche. Until the recent passage of a special piece of legislation, Prince George’s County didn’t technically allow urban farming in residential areas. And yet, this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) labeled several parts of the county as “food deserts” — areas where residents have limited access to grocery stores and fresh produce.

“Although everyone eats, not everyone has equal access to healthy nutrient rich fruit and vegetables and far too many people in our County are offered only highly processed fat- and salt-laden choices,” said Margaret Morgan-Hubbard, the CEO and founder of ECO City Farms.

The nonprofit’s Bladensburg location addresses the problem of food deserts and food justice head on. Located on 3.5 acres next to the Autumn Woods Apartments complex in one of the areas highlighted by the USDA, the Bladensburg farm is already producing an abundance of fresh vegetables. Kale, swiss chard, tomatoes, basil, and squash grow in gently trailing rows, while down the hill farmers and volunteers have constructed and will be expanding a “food forest,” a sustainable natural landscape made up of berry bushes and edible fruiting trees.

The Bladensburg site incorporates the principles of permaculture, a type of ecological and environmental design modeled after natural ecosystems. Such sites are designed to be regenerative and self-sustaining, though annuals like most of the vegetables will have to be reseeded and planted each year.

“ECO is a Certified Naturally Grown farm. This designation goes beyond USDA’s organic certification, and is bestowed on farms by other sustainable farmers world-wide. We try to create an oasis of health in our little piece of the world,” says Deborah Wren, a birthright farmer and Edmonston’s Farm Manager.

Another of ECO City Farms’ initiatives is the SEED2FEED Summer Youth Program, a four week long six hour-a-day intensive camp for high school students. This year, over 22 youth worked together to learn about food and the food system through mediums that including cooking, bee-keeping, nutrition education, collage-making and spoken word poetry. Part of each day was spent growing food and harvesting at the Bladensburg farm. In addition, each week youth were given a bag of produce to take home and cook for their families.

Many of the students come from immigrant families and brought with them knowledge of their ancestral cuisine. Others had never before seen a growing vegetable, never mind one on an organic farm.

“It’s difficult, but rewarding, to witness the young people discovering new ways of being,” observed Viviana Lindo, ECO City Farms’ director of community education. “We are in this movement to make change.”

She said the students appreciate the effort.

“One youth joined the program because she wanted to connect with her mother through gardening.” Another wanted to help his father in his struggle with diabetes.

This year, SEED2FEED included cooking lessons from Zenful Bites, a Washington, D.C. based catering and education LLC. Youth learned how to turn the food on the farm into mouth-watering meals.

“All year-long young people sit in one classroom after another and try to grasp ideas through their intellect. At our very experiential learning farm, they get to turn ideas into action and learn with their entire bodies, collaboratively by doing, reflecting, tasting and creating,” said Margaret Morgan-Hubbard. “We trust that this kind of learning in community will endure and encourage lifelong healthy practices.”

ECO City Farms seeks to enhance food security, safety and access, to improve nutrition and health, to preserve cultural and ecological diversity, and to accelerate the transition to an economy based on preservation, recycling and restoration. We amplify community voice and engagement to reinvigorate the Chesapeake foodshed with sustainable ways of making food and money. For more information visit: www.ecocityfarms.org