Posts Tagged ‘urban environmentalist’

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By: Margaret Morgan-Hubbard

I am the daughter of a Russian Jewish refugee who escaped the holocaust and landed in NYC in the mid 1930’s. Farming may not be in my blood, but fighting for justice certainly is part of my inheritance.  I aim to expand equity and justice, while protecting and restoring the environment. 

While working at the University of Maryland, I formed the Engaged University (EU) to make the University more accountable and responsive to our local community. I began to focus particularly on community health, food and the environment, because I discovered the systemic neglect and abuse inflicted by industrial food production on local people and the land. I wanted to explore ways I could act locally and impact globally.  

In 2007, I started the Masterpeace Community Farm. The goal of the project was to create a communal space that enabled the growth of middle school youth, college students, and local community residents, primarily of African and Latinx heritage. My staff and I found the young people’s positive response to growing, preparing, and eating healthy food especially intriguing.

When the University of Maryland defunded the project, a few of us decided to continue our food justice work through the non-profit we formed called Engaged Community Offshoots, or ECO. Ultimately, our work evolved into ECO City Farms. 

When we began ECO, we secured an agreement with the chief dietitian of the Prince George’s Public School System to supply seasonal organic vegetables for a salad bar at William Wirt Middle School. Although this agreement was never honored, we were able to leverage the commitment to secure land from the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission as well as funding from a number of area foundations for the farm. 

Losing Masterpeace Community Farm solidified our determination to own the land for ECO. We located a perfect site— a residential house in a low food access/low income neighborhood with a large back yard where food had been grown for decades. 

When I met with the Planning Office and local Council members, I was informed that I could never build hoop houses nor create a commercial urban farm in a residential neighborhood, and that urban farming was  not a legal land use in the County. Nevertheless, I persisted.   I continued to insist on meetings with planning supervisors, and then their bosses, going higher and higher up the chain of command. After a series of such meetings, I finally reached a director who publicly declared: “This woman is never going to go away, so let’s just give her some parkland on which to farm!” I was escorted to the Parks Division and spent many hours looking over maps to find a suitable site. 

The land I ultimately secured for ECO was just two blocks away from the land I tried to purchase, and it was free. However, the use agreement was only good for one year and the land had a tennis court in front of it that the town hoped to redevelop. Nevertheless, we built our farm and immediately began growing and selling food. 

Local politicians were so impressed with our achievements that by the end of the year, we were able to achieve a number of things, including: negotiating a 15-year renewable use agreement, expanding onto the obsolete tennis court, building a processing kitchen out of a shipping container, and renting the first floor of a Parks & Recreation Division house for our offices, less than a mile from the farm. After months of persistent advocacy and the struggle, the County code was changed to allow urban farming, along with its accompanying infrastructure, in almost every zone of Prince George’s County.

With land secured, funds raised and basic infrastructure built, we imagined that all we had left to do was grow good food for our healthy-food-deprived neighbors and they would come. But nothing is that simple. 

While there is certainly a need for healthy locally grown food in every community everywhere, there is often a disconnect between the food we grew and the eating habits, purchasing practices, cooking skills and desires of the community where that food is grown. Our clientele was rarely the predominantly working class Latinx residents who neighbored the farm.

Over ten long years, with many advances and setbacks, ECO has become the première urban farm in the metropolitan DC region, employing 7 people—mainly women– full time and exposing hundreds of people yearly to the art and science of urban growing. We have taught many hundreds of DC area residents, aspiring farmers and their families through community-based experiential learning courses at our farm– incorporating cultivating and harvesting vegetables, cooking, nutrition, composting, herbalism, business skills and responsible environmental stewardship. 

We’ve exposed many hundreds of area school children to environmental education and conduct 6-week-long youth summer employment programs every year, including this one. We’ve engaged hundreds of area college students in programs about healthy eating and active living. We’ve held dozens of community events, poetry readings, festivals and celebrations. 

Together with Prince George’s Community College, we’ve issued a Certificate of Completion in Commercial Urban Agriculture to the hundreds of trainees who attend our courses and we are just now completing the fourth of a six-year USDA grant to train urban farmers to fulfill ECO’s mission to “grow great food, farms and farmers.”  

We’ve managed to keep our farms open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, implementing practices that maintain social distancing amongst staff, customers and apprentices.  Simultaneously, we’ve provided affordable weekly farm shares to 70 local families and supply free weekly shares to 25-40 area senior households.

We helped to found the Prince George’s Food Equity Council to advocate for the policy change that is needed to make food production, distribution and consumption more equitable.  Our goal is to undo the damage wrought by the plantation economy, persistent racism, the  devastation of the environment and the industrialization of the food system.

Despite all of our collaborative work to date, urban farms have not proliferated as rapidly as we initially imagined; few children get to eat healthy, fresh, locally grown foods at school; most families do not know where their food comes from or how it is produced; small scale farming is only marginally economically viable; and few public resources are devoted to ensuring that toxic-free food is a human right.

I am proud that after 10 years of hard work and persistence, ECO City Farms still exists as a model of what is possible. And I am excited that when we advertise  our training to students now, the majority of our responders are women of color of all ages who want to ensure their food is toxic-free and grown by people they trust, and who earn a living wage. But there are still very few new urban farms, and many financial and other impediments to becoming a full-time urban farmer. 

I know that I and my partners in this struggle cannot rest until truly sustainable urban farms pepper the landscape of Maryland and beyond, and that everyone who wants to grow food, for themselves and/or others, has the opportunity, means, resources and know-how to do so. 

Please join me in this effort. Let me know what steps you are taking to make your local food system more just, equitable and healthy for all.  [email protected]

Margaret Morgan-Hubbard, founder of ECO City Farms in 2010, is a daughter, sister, mother, grandmother and friend of the earth, who has lived in the DC area since 1982. ECO is the premier nonprofit urban teaching and learning farm in Prince George’s County that grows great food, farms and farmers in ways that protect, restore and sustain the natural environment. Working with area children, youth and adults, ECO educates and trains the area’s next generation of area urban farmers and eaters.

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By Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

As an urban environmentalist, I often find myself engaged in a hyper-conscious balancing act where I strive to prioritize meta issues of ecological import with the growing demands of the built environment. It requires a melding of world views and a mindful way of seeing, which mirrors the topography of any major city, layers upon layers of organic matter organized into neat and surreal spaces by use and design.  It’s a constant deconstruction of norms and assumptions in the service of holistic life.  Today, I’m curious about bees and what their survival means for the concrete nooks I call home.

Why should you care about pollinator protection?

The news is flush with information on the decline of bee colonies. Bees are dying off at an alarming rate thanks in no small part to insecticides and fungicides used on plants to prevent crop losses.  In particular, there is evidence that chemicals applied to signature US crops of modern American diet are linked to bee colony collapse.

What’s the big deal with bees?

bee-in-sweetpeaBees aren’t just the scourge of allergy allegory or the worry of weekend trips to sandy and grassy spaces. Bees are a landmark species. They are a marker of ecological health and an essential link in the food chain. Bees support hundreds of thousands of flowering plants through pollination and increase the yields of over ninety crops including but not limited to apples, blueberries, and cucumbers. Bee pollination forms the basis of growth for plants that quite literally provide us with lifesaving medicines. They cross-fertilize to give us a third of everything we eat.  Bees are the invisible engine of our agricultural system, which makes them kind of a big deal.

Predictions

The threat of a world without bees isn’t an abstract danger. A loss of wild and domestic bee colonies would affect the diversity and availability of foods available to the world population of roughly seven billion humans, which would feature approximately fifty percent of the fruit, vegetable, and agricultural food stores it now possesses. In short, what happens to them happens to us. Bees die off due to mass infections, susceptibility to poor nutrition, and illness from chemical exposure, and we do the same.

Responses and Solutions

Despite the bleak and dire forecast there are some plans in the works to address this issue and develop strategies to promote health of honeybees and other pollinators.  Our government is looking at the effects of large scale agricultural operations and related federal activities through the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs. In collaboration with public and private partners EPA has developed a proposal to protect bees, bats, and monarch butterflies which aims to reduce colony losses over the next ten years and restore or enhance lands for pollination.

albina-34431284019348nlf4In particular, the EPA Plan looks to mitigate losses by focusing on commercial pollination through label restrictions which warn of effects, and pesticide application engagement programs which are administered through managed pollination protection plans aimed at farmers and food growers.  These plans focus on the operational relationships between beekeepers and landowners who work together when bees are brought onto big farms to pollinate commercially (raise your hand if you knew they did that!) where pesticides have been applied.

EPA’s plans for mitigation are designed to better assess risk to pollinators, reduce potential risk from toxics, engage state and tribal partners, and expedite review of the managed plans.

What can you do to help the bees?

This effort will take more than federal interagency input and cooperation. The EPA is looking for public comments on its plan.  In fact, the public comment period was recently extended to July 29, 2015, from the original closing date of May 29, 2015. So, Ecowomen take a look at the plan and submit comments on the overall proposal, make your voice heard on landowner and beekeeper local agreements, and ways to evaluate plans effectiveness to reduce risks to bees. Additionally, the EPA needs more information on systemic pesticides, microbial pesticides before it advises on label changes on the affected chemicals by 2016.

Additionally, if you too are an urban environmentalist you can do a few things in your local community to support pollination. On your next trip to the farmer’s market support and purchase honey from your local bee man or woman.  At home, you can make your green space, yard or terrace and pots friendlier to bees by planting rosemary, and flowering plants such as the Black Eyed Susan, and avoid using pesticides to grow them during the warmer months. And if you are really feeling the call to action call upon your local government, council or representative to push for wholesale bans of toxic chemical applications in your local, municipal gardens and greenspaces.

Tamara is an environmental advocate focused on social and environmental justice issues. She holds degrees from The City College, City University of New York and Vermont Law School.  Tamara has been a DC EcoWomen Board Member on the Professional Development Team since August 2014. Her hobbies include reading boring books about politics and neuroscience, writing diatribes about what she reads,  travel, and yoga.