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While she recovered from breast cancer surgery five years ago, Lelia Parker decided to find a way to fill her days. “I needed something to do because I was feeling better,” she says. “People don’t like giving old people jobs, so I was trying to find somewhere to fit in.” On a walk up Ely Place SE, near her home in Ward 7, Parker discovered a green space wrapping around the Fort Dupont Ice Arena that would end up impacting the lives of three generations of her family.
The nonprofit agriculture organization DC UrbanGreens operates a farm on that property, and when Parker met DC UrbanGreens co-founders Julie Kirkwood and Vincent Forte, they told her they needed help. Soon after Parker started volunteering, she was promoted to outreach coordinator and is now a paid, part-time employee.
The work takes Parker back to her upbringing in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, where her family farmed everything from corn to tobacco. “We raised our food and went to the cannery and put it in cans or my mother put them in jars at home,” she says. “We killed hogs and put some in the freezer and others we smoked in the smokehouse. The summer parts of the year we were getting stuff ready for winter. During the winter, we didn’t have too much to do but sit back, eat, and get fat.”
“I’m a dirt person,” Parker says. Through DC UrbanGreens, she says, “I found my way back to the dirt.”
Kirkwood says Parker was one of the first community members to get involved at the farm. “Nobody really had the guts to come up and say, ‘What is this, I want to be a part of it,’” she explains. “When you’re starting from scratch, that was invaluable.”
DC UrbanGreens currently grows cucumbers, kale, collard greens, eggplant, zucchini, arugula, tomatoes, and okra with the goal of feeding a segment of the city with few food options. Only three full-service grocery stores exist in wards 7 and 8, and corner stores and carryouts still dominate the food landscape.
The organization’s goals go beyond increasing access to healthy food. They also work to empower volunteers and employees from the community and provide educational opportunities and a sense of belonging for visitors.
“Growing food is a vehicle for the changes we’re making in the community with people,” Kirkwood says. “We’re not growing food, we’re growing people. They have to have the passion, will, commitment, and work ethic, but you have to build their qualifications.”
Parker’s family embodies DC UrbanGreens’ mission. Parker’s son Taboris Robinson and grandson Montell Holland also work with the organization, and all three generations live across the street from the farm, in the Banneker Place Apartments. Before following his mother to DC UrbanGreens three years ago, Robinson held jobs in kitchens and carpentry following a trying stretch in the music industry.
Robinson started out building hoop houses, structures that trap heat and protect plants from wind. “Then it seemed like the more time I hung around, the more time I found myself in the dirt,” Robinson says. “Next thing I knew I was working here and I was always in the dirt. I did not set out to be no farmer. It’s relaxing once you settle into it. And then just to see how you can start a seed and the seed turns into what you see outside. It’s a little amazing to me.”
His official title is distribution coordinator. He manages three farms for DC UrbanGreens—the one at Fort Dupont, the small plots behind the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy down the street, and the Fort Stanton farm in Ward 8—and supervises other employees.
This year he got an extra boost of education through Sibley Memorial Hospital’s Ward Infinity program, an initiative that supports health and wellness in wards 7 and 8. As a member of the 2019 Community Health Innovators in Residence cohort, Robinson worked alongside Sibley’s Innovation Hub team and other partners to learn and work toward solving existing problems.
Often you can find Robinson walking around the farms with a clipboard in his hand. It holds the spreadsheet he uses to plan out what should be planted in each bed and when. He starts seeds in a room inside the ice arena until they’re sturdy enough to plant outside. Then it’s on to “picking bugs, weeding, harvesting, prepping, and getting ready for market,” Robinson says. He also battles a family of groundhogs who treat the Fort Dupont farm like a buffet.
“My biggest challenge is fighting bugs because we do everything organically,” he says. “Harlequin bugs, hornworms, aphids, and a couple other bugs I don’t even know what their names are. There are some white butterflies that are not cool at all.”
The battle with bugs is particularly trying because DC UrbanGreens farms organically, opting not to use pesticides and other chemical deterrents. “I tell my customers, if the bugs don’t want it, you don’t either,” Robinson says. “You need to question all that stuff you see in the store that ain’t got a bug bite on it.”
On Saturdays, when DC UrbanGreens simultaneously sells its haul at a small stand outside of the ice arena and at the Ward 8 farmers market in Congress Heights, Robinson feels extra pressure. Amish woodworkers built the organization a portable farmstand that Robinson uses to attractively display the produce at the farmers market, but when the day is done and unsold vegetables remain, he feels disappointed. The organization donates leftover food to places like Children of Mine, a youth center in Anacostia.
“It’s heartbreaking when you go to the stand and you have your stuff for the market and you’re leaving with food to take back,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking when you put your heart and love in something for somebody and they ignore you.”
“I’d like to see more people being interested in buying the vegetables,” Parker says. “Although we have a pretty good market going now, I see room for it to be much better. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get the people to understand that most of what we are doing is for you and your health.” The DC UrbanGreens farmstand participates in the District’s Produce Plus Program, which gives eligible residents up to $20 per week to spend on produce at farmers markets from June through September.
Participation in DC UrbanGreens’ Community Supported Agriculture program, an initiative in which customers pay ahead and pick up boxes of vegetables at the farm every week, is also quite low. This year they only had five or six members.
“We don’t really make enough to sustain the business,” Robinson explains. “We need more people to invest, more sponsors, more things of that nature to keep it going. I’d like to see more people step up.”
Kirkwood wrestles with these challenges daily. Her ultimate goal is for DC UrbanGreens to be fully self-sustaining and free from the need of grants or other financial support. “You have a whole organization that exists to increase food access and then nobody who comes and gets the food,” Kirkwood says. “That’s our philosophical question. Why do we exist? Does the community want us?”
Maybe the next generation will figure out how to grab the community’s attention. Robinson’s son Montell Holland is working at DC UrbanGreens for the summer through the Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program. The Department of Employment Services-supported program helps District residents ages 14 to 24 find summer jobs with the potential to positively impact their future. Holland works five hours a day, five days a week.
The 16-year-old previously tended to the farm as a volunteer, but this is his first time earning a paycheck. His dad thinks it’s only a summer job. “He’s just trying to get paid,” Robinson says. “He ain’t into it yet. I don’t think this is where he wants to be for real, but it’s a job and it’s across the street.”
His son has a different take on farming with his family. “I think it’s pretty awesome that they’re doing something to help the community,” Holland says. “I also like it because it’s teaching me valuable lessons. So if I ever wanted to start my own garden, I would have the knowledge. I’m still learning. The only thing I’m good at so far is pulling weeds.”