Thursday, October 23, 2014

CAUSES: Where the Community is our Classroom

By Dr. Sabine O’Hara, Dean of CAUSES and Director of Landgrant Programs 

CAUSES has grown with tremendous speed over the past three years. Key to our success has been our mission: to offer research based academic and community outreach programs that improve the quality of life and economic opportunity of D.C. residents. This worthwhile mission calls for the integration of our academic and landgrant programs. Landgrant universities have always sought to be relevant to the needs of their communities by focusing on research that makes a difference in the lives of local people and by offering education both on their campuses and in local neighborhoods. We receive direction for our work through the USDA that sets broad goals for the nation's Landgrant Universities, while fostering creativity, teamwork and innovation. 

Our current goals address challenging issues like improving food security, food and water safety, mitigating climate change, alternative energy, and combating childhood obesity and other food related health problems. Finding solutions to these big challenges requires collaboration across academic disciplines, hands on work, and perseverance. For us here at UDC it also requires a very unique focus, namely on urban food security, urban food and water safety, urban food related health problems etc. After all, our own community is exclusively urban. The District of Columbia does not have any wide expanses of farm land, and our forests extend to Rock Creek Park. This urban focus sets us apart from all the other landgrant universities in the United States. And what a great focus it is! It links people and the environment, and creates unusual alliances like urban agriculture, and urban sustainability.   

But why would urban agriculture and urban sustainability be such a great focus for our work? Are they really relevant to the District of Columbia? The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines Food Security as "Access by all people at all times to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life.” Low food security refers to a diet of reduced quality, variety or desirability for some populations. To achieve food security, food must be (1) readily available at all times to all people, and (2) be high in nutritional value so that it can sustain health, wellness and energy. Our food system is vulnerable on both scores.

First, many households lack access to fresh produce. Secondly, our food travels long distances. To accommodate the weeks it spends in transport and in distribution centers, it is harvested long before it ripens and long before its nutritional value reaches its peak. Eight census tracks in D.C. qualify as outright food deserts. This means that fresh food is simply unavailable. Of the 520 food retailers in D.C., 88% do not offer any fresh produce, and only 12% offer an adequate variety of fresh food to support a healthy diet. The Household Food Security Survey conducted by the USDA indicates that 13% of D.C. households are food insecure; 19% experience food hardship; and 37% of households with children are unable to afford enough nutritious food. This is the highest rate of food insecurity among children in the U.S. And this is the state of affairs on a normal day. What if a natural disaster cuts off the delivery of food to the District? Or what if someone intentionally cased harm to our highly centralized food supply?

So is food security an important theme for D.C.? No question--it is! And central to our ability to find solutions to challenging issues like food security is our research farm. Over these past two years, it has morphed into a beacon of innovation, setting the precedent for urban food production through such innovative techniques like bio-intensive production methods, low-till box gardens, hydroponics systems where vegetables grow in nutrient rich water rather than in soil, and neighborhood-based aquaponic systems that link fish production and vegetable production by using the excrement from the fish as fertilizer for the vegetable plants thus eliminating the need to buy fertilizer. These methods can be used to produce high yields of fresh produce in small spaces and they can also mitigate soil contamination, which may be an issue in urban neighborhoods.

Our research farm tests these innovative production methods and it is fast becoming a go-to place for anyone who wants to learn how to use them to improve their own health and that of their families and neighbors, while also making a living. Assessing the economic viability of urban agriculture is as much of a focus of our work as its technical viability; and food preparation, nutrition education and entrepreneurship are as much of a focus of our work as food production techniques.

Yet the success of the farm and the Center for Urban Agriculture to which it belongs organizationally could not be accomplished without the help of the other divisions in CAUSES. This is where our interdisciplinary collaborations shine. Beyond the farm, the Nutrition and Dietetics program and the Center for Nutrition, Diet and Health teach District residents about the importance of healthy food that can still be delicious; the Center for Sustainable Development links food production to water management by increasing porous surfaces in urban neighborhoods, and explores marketing channels like farmers markets and ethnics and specialty foods markets; the Department of Architecture and Community planning, coupled with the Architectural Research Institute, provide the necessary design know-how for our unique greenhouses or for turning small plot of urban land into productive agricultural land;  Nursing and Health Education help bridge the connection between preventative health, healthy living environments and physical activity; and the Center for 4-H and Youth Development draws on all of our programs to bring cutting edge, experiential learning opportunities to young people in every Ward of the District.

As we like to say in CAUSES, the community is our classroom, our research is shaped by our everyday environment, and our local job market is global and knowledge-based. We don't just talk about thinking in systems, working in diverse teams, and focusing on connectivity and innovation, we do it every day. We invite you to join us on our journey!

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