Photo of Mary Rossettos by Laura Hayes

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“It’s so sad,” says LaShawn Lewis. “I don’t see how this little bit is going to hurt anything. Why can’t you leave this here? That is unbelievable.” Lewis is at the K Street Farm kicking off the 2018-2019 growing season by pulling up last year’s collard greens and cabbages alongside other volunteers. It’s the last year for the farm, which is destined to become part of a new Pepco substation in Spring 2019. 

The closure is weighing heavily on the volunteers who came out on Feb. 24, but they’re determined to make the farm’s swan song count. “I’m going to make sure to be here now more than ever because maybe they’ll come to their senses,” Lewis says. “Why can’t they put solar panels on all of these buildings and leave this here?” 

Back in 2015, the District inked a complex series of land deals involving the power supplier. The city paid close to $40 million to acquire property to make way for the new D.C. United stadium. In return, the city sold just over two acres of public land at First and K streets NW to Pepco for close to $16 million—including the three quarters of an acre where the K Street Farm sits. A substation is required to fully power the rapidly developing NoMa and Mt. Vernon Square neighborhoods. 

“This parcel was the last domino of that land-swap,” says DC Greens executive director Lauren Shweder Biel. “It was referred to as a ‘parcel on K Street.’ We’re like, ‘It’s a farm!’” DC Greens started the farm in 2010 together with leadership from the abutting Walker-Jones Education Campus, which serves prekindergarten through 8th grade. Then for a few years, the school attempted to tend the garden without outside support—a difficult task for such a large space. 

In 2014, DC Greens was brought back in to restore the urban farm to its full potential at the behest of a preteen and her mother who watched, from their apartment windows, as the land morphed from robust farm to underutilized lawn. The mom and daughter demanded more from the school’s leadership, according to Shweder Biel. DC Greens is a nonprofit focused on using food education, food access, and food policy to advance food justice within the D.C. food system.

The K Street Farm is the prototype for what a community garden or urban farm can do for its immediate surroundings and beyond. It’s uniquely positioned at a busy intersection where New Jersey Avenue NW meets K Street NW, making it highly visible. “The bus stop is the coolest engagement tool we have,” says DC Greens farm director Kate Lee. “We have so many conversations through the fence as people wait to catch their bus.” 

On one side of the farm stands Golden Rule Plaza. The apartment building houses seniors who are 62 and up. Lee says DC Greens has set up a produce market in the building’s community room in the past, and now the seniors walk over to the farm to pick up their boxes of vegetables as a part of the farm’s CSA program. DC Greens accepts SNAP and WIC, and prices for the CSA are generally lower than produce prices at area grocery stores. 

Many older District denizens don’t have access to three meals a day, let alone nutrient-rich fresh produce. In D.C., 17.78 percent of seniors 60 and older face the threat of hunger, according to a National Foundation to End Senior Hunger report published in Aug. 2017. That is the 15th highest percentage of hungry seniors in the nation (with the District counted in a list of states).

Joyce Hawkins lives in one of the apartment buildings by the farm. She purchases a box of produce weekly. “I ate some vegetables for the first time,” she says, ticking off a long list: spaghetti squash, sweet potato greens, acorn squash, and three-color green beans. Swiss chard she can’t get enough of. Beets? Not so much.

Access to fresh vegetables and learning new recipes positioned Hawkins to become a pescatarian two years ago and reclaim her health. “I’m going to have to find another farm to go to now,” she says. “The produce tastes much better and lasts much longer than when you get it from the store,” she says.

Mary Rossettos agrees. She was one of the volunteers readying the K Street Farm for its last season on Feb. 24. DC Greens employs Rossettos through its Market Champions program, which empowers people who have previously benefited from the city’s Produce Plus Program to spread the word about farmers markets in D.C. communities. 

The Produce Plus Program, run by DC Greens in collaboration with the Department of Health, provides farmers market customers receiving federal benefits such as SNAP and Medicaid with $10 to spend on produce up to twice a week. 

“People in this city aren’t eating healthy foods,” Rossettos says. “When I go to the grocery store, I always look at people’s baskets. I’m amazed to see canned foods, prepared foods, and Oodles of Noodles. People need to know about fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Because Walker-Jones overlooks the property, the K Street Farm also benefits younger generations. The school includes food from the farm in the cafeteria salad bar and some classes take part in educational programs in the farm in partnership with DC Central Kitchen. 

Bright Beginnings, which operates out of The Perry School at 128 M Street NW and works to enrich the lives of D.C.’s homeless children, also benefits. “They come every day with the kids and sit and look at the chickens,” Lee says. The birds typically arrive in April. 

Over the years, DC Greens has utilized the K Street Farm to grow produce to support its many programs, including one that allows doctors to write prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables that can be redeemed for produce by low-income patients at high risk of chronic diseases. DC Greens also uses the farm as a training space for school garden coordinators and as a pick-up point for produce to support its school garden market program.

Even star chefs like Aaron Silverman of Pineapple & Pearls and Rose’s Luxury have benefitted from the K Street Farm. While most of the farm is dedicated to growing basic vegetables like carrots, beets, onions, tomatoes, and peppers, there is a special section from which restaurants purchase niche ingredients like edible flowers and herbs. The money chefs pay for flora they can tweeze onto dazzling dishes at Michelin-starred restaurants helps subsidize the farm’s operations. 

“It’s meaningful to know that our dollars are helping an organization like DC Greens that’s working to build a healthy and equitable food system in our city,” Silverman says. “It’s also valuable for our restaurant to have a hyper-local farm where we can source delicate speciality items that can’t travel far,” he continues. His staff visits the farm to help harvest the items they serve.

Finally, the positioning of the K Street Farm has been important politically. “We’ve even brought in groups of Hill staffers to see the value of urban agriculture and farm-to-school programs in action,” Shweder Biel says. “It’s in such a key spot in terms of being in the shadow of the [United States] Capitol and right in between the housing projects and the wave of development that’s coming across the city.”

The land is in Ward 6, where Councilmember Charles Allen serves. “It’s just been a phenomenal-but-rare opportunity in a city to be able to have such access to a farm and understand what it means to grow vegetables,” says Allen. 

Shweder Biel notes that Allen was instrumental in coaxing Pepco into letting the farm operate until the last second. “I sat down with the Pepco executives and told them I wanted to see the farm continue for as long as it could and make it a priority,” he says. He even talked to them about potentially bringing back the farm after they finish construction. “There’s no deal on that yet.” 

Shweder Biel and Lee aim to relocate the K Street Farm to Ward 7 or 8. Both wards have areas that are considered food deserts. “It’s a priority of mine,” Lee says. “It’s where our work has the largest impact.” Shweder Biel echoes, “As the Produce Plus Program has grown, our constituents are located east of the river and there’s a lot of interest and demand for us having a space in Ward 8.” 

Shweder Biel is encouraged by the city’s recent efforts. “There are glimmers of hope that the city is recognizing the value of urban agriculture inside of its development plans,” she says. 

A bill introduced in 2014 set an aggressive goal of identifying at least 25 District-owned vacant lots that could potentially be used for urban farming by Feb. 2015. It was called the “D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014.” 

According to the Department of General Services, which oversees urban agriculture programs, the city has identified three District-owned sites to date. They’re comprised of a total of about two acres of land in Wards 5 and 8. 

The low number of identified sites doesn’t mean work has stalled. The “Urban Farming and Food Security Amendment Act of 2016” was signed into law in Feb. 2017. DGS says this legislation is “a very positive step in making publicly owned vacant land into potentially thriving and abundant urban farms.” 

Another round of District-owned vacant site identification is underway, according to DGS. The city is also looking into municipal sites that that might have a portion of underutilized land that could be used for urban agriculture, as well as District-owned buildings whose rooftops could be used for farming. Finally, DGS says they plan to address how privately owned properties can be made available for urban farming, potentially with tax abatements for land owners. 

While Shweder Biel has joked about chaining herself to the K Street Farm when they’re forced to vacate next spring, she understands the competing interests. 

“At this point it’s an object lesson of the choices we have to make as a city,” she says. “If this can spark a conversation about what our city’s development looks like and the need to integrate community spaces, green spaces into development plans, this will have been for good.”