I like that we’ve started this Academy of Urban Ecology, which is geared around urban agriculture. In my own opinion, part of the reasons that we’re having issues with climate change and climate justice is because we feel separated from the environment. We don’t really understand or appreciate our role within the environment.
How did you arrive at your current role?
I initially came to DC for law school in 2009, and while I was in law school, I had an environmental epiphany when I wondered where my food was coming from. I learned about environmental justice, and previously I hadn’t known what that was. While I was going to law school at UDC, I learned that they have a College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Science. They also have a research farm in Beltsville, Maryland. And so, while I was in law school, I was also doing a work study with them, learning how to grow food. I started a UDC Garden Club, which was an effort to start gardening on the UDC campus. Then during my final year of law school, I wrote a paper on all the fundamental problems I saw with it, essentially, paving my path away from being a lawyer. I chose to instead do the urban agriculture thing.
I implemented a grant at UDC to create a sensory garden with different trees, plants, with different textures and smells. After that grant, I worked with a nonprofit organization called City Blossoms. They’re all about connecting kids with gardening. And then after that I worked with Compost Cab for a bit, learning how to compost people’s food waste and turning it into soil.
My mother had been very lenient with my decision to not become a lawyer, since I had paid for three years of law school. I wanted to show her I was making progress with this new path. I found a list of principals in DC and reached out to them all saying, “Hey, I’m interested in being a school garden coordinator.” At the time, they were just opening up the new Tech Prep building with a greenhouse and they needed someone to run it. It was perfect timing.
How has your experience been since then, teaching Urban Agriculture at FPCS Tech Prep?
I never thought I wanted to be or would be a teacher, but this is definitely the right place for me. Not only is my office technically the greenhouse, which is pretty awesome, but there’s also a lot of space at the school to grow, figuratively and literally. Once I got my bearings, I said, “It’d be pretty great to start a school farm.” Each year, I’m trying to add another piece to that puzzle to eventually get us a school farm, so that we are able to expand our offerings and be a food hub for the surrounding community.
Can you talk about what students learn in your class?
First, they learn about the food system, how it works, the issues surrounding it, food deserts, food justice, and then they get to grow their own vegetables and plants. They learn how to take care of plants, how to do it sustainably, organically, and how to mitigate any pest issues that come up. We have three worm bins in the greenhouse for composting. So, whenever we have food scraps, we use that. They see how a banana peel can turn into soil. Then, the other component that I think is important is cooking. Students will grow things in the greenhouse, then they’ll come up with recipes for those ingredients and we’ll have cooking demonstrations.
We always try to go on at least 2 or 3 field trips per year so they can see how other community gardens or urban farms run, they then bring some new ideas back to Tech Prep.
What have your students’ reactions to your class and lessons been?
The cooking part gets everybody excited. Last year, two graduating seniors wrote a thesis about food justice and related obesity issues, exploring the food sold near the school. They’re perceptive and recognize what’s going on in their community. They see that there are multiple liquor stores and carry outs, but no real place to get fresh vegetables. Now, they have the vocabulary and a broader sense of what’s going on. That’s one thing that they definitely get out of it. Also, hopefully they’ll gain some cooking skills-one or two recipes that they can make. They’ll know the basics of taking care of plants, how to water them, and how to identify diseases and other issues.
What kind of careers would they pursue if they were interested in continuing this kind of work professionally?
They can pursue botany if they want to study the science around how plants grow. Culinary arts is another field they may pursue. We took a field trip to the USDA; if they want to work in policy, they can be involved with that. DC is a good place for urban farming; there’s a vibrant scene here. They can start their own community garden, get involved with other community farms, and continue to expand their knowledge.
Can you talk more about food justice?
Food justice is about everyone-regardless of race, sexual orientation, etc.-having access to healthy and affordable produce. In our class we talk about the existence of food deserts, where it is difficult for people to access healthy fresh food at affordable prices. Our school is located in a food desert and many of our kids live in this food desert. It is an issue they understand. One project we’ve worked on was when the students had to work in groups and each group was assigned a ward. Then they were tasked with conducting a demographic study on that ward-race, median income, etc. Then they’ll count the number of grocery stores in each ward. They’ll see that in their ward, there is a clear contrast to other parts of the city. When they compare at the median income, they get a better idea of why this is happening.
We are not just growing food for the heck of it, but we want to eventually offer affordable and healthy food to more people. We offer our school garden market during the fall and spring. We started a CSA program with teachers and school staff. It’s a short-term CSA and teachers determine how much produce they want – five or ten pounds-then they pay us a fee to deliver it every week for the season. We’re trying to find a way to broaden our offerings; it’s one of our goals for upcoming years.
Can you talk about the bees and chicken?
We rented the chickens last fall but are trying to bring them back on a permanent basis. The bees, however, are here to stay. We have two beehives. The first year of beekeeping is all about the bees making their own honey for their winter food reserve. After the first year, we can start to collect the honey. We’ve applied for and obtained a grant for an outdoor classroom, which will be an incredible addition to the school campus and will also be another piece in the school farm project. It will come with a rain garden and cooking station to prepare and wash food.
What do you like about Friendship Tech Prep?
I like that we’ve started this Academy of Urban Ecology, which is geared around urban agriculture. In my own opinion, part of the reasons that we’re having issues with climate change and climate justice is because we feel separated from the environment. We don’t really understand or appreciate our role within the environment. Having an academy geared towards urban ecology will hopefully play a role in resolving this issue. The kids will go on camping trips, go hiking, and grow plants. This will hopefully draw their attention to and inspire a wonder for our environment. This is an important and good thing for the future.