Dr. Kate Tully researches food security at the University of Maryland, and moonlights as an urban farmer at a Northwest DC community garden called Columbia Heights Green.
The farm, which is funded by the non-profit Washington Parks and People, usually provides between 20-50% of its annual yield to local charities. But as the pandemic escalated in mid-March, Tully and her fellow farmers decided to donate their entire harvest to Martha’s Table, a local nonprofit that supports underserved families.
As DC residents cope with the coronavirus and an economy in freefall, urban farmers like Tully could play a role in meeting the fast-growing need for healthy food.
How the coronavirus hurt the food supply chain
The coronavirus pandemic has contributed to food shortages at local grocery stores and depleted the supplies of local food pantries, which are struggling to keep up with increased demand. The Capital Area Food Bank for instance, has described their need for volunteers and donations during this time as “critical.”
Just last month, Thrive DC, a local DC charity that provides services to unhoused members of the community, published a letter saying it would support their clients online with counseling and connecting them with services, but could no longer provide meals, having “exhausted our supply of food and cleaning products.”
Many DC families have long struggled with access to healthy meals; that struggle has become even harder during the pandemic.
Tully, who is an Assistant Professor of Agroecology at the University of Maryland as well as the lead farm manager at Columbia Heights Green, thinks community gardens and urban farms can do more to help.
For the past year, Tully and her fellow urban farmers had been asking themselves what they could do to better help their neighbors access healthy food. They wanted to know whether it was possible for them to simply grow what was needed.
Not all veggies are created equal
Working together with fellow UMD researchers Dr. Caroline Boules and Michael Malcolm, Tully examined the nutritional makeup of the produce grown at Columbia Heights Green. They found that the food they were growing and donating was not the most optimal.
The mix of vegetables they cultivated did not provide all the nutrients necessary for a well-rounded and complete diet — generating much less iron than needed. Vitamins A, C, and iron are considered to be the nutrients less commonly found in people with poor diets.
This is important because many DC families do not struggle with getting the right number of calories needed to subsist, but with getting the right mix of nutrients to remain healthy. It’s what Tully calls the “double burden of malnutrition.” People who are poor may eat enough food to make it through their day, but they may not be able to obtain the right amount of essential nutrients.
Because not all vegetables and fruits are created equal, Tully and her colleagues decided to grow more nutrient-dense produce: “more spinach, more broccoli, more carrots, more butternut squash,” and other root vegetables and leafy greens to help fill the micronutrient gap.
Reaching the people
Before the pandemic, Tully and her team had planned to survey their neighbors in person by frequenting soup kitchens and opening a stand next to the DC SNAP booth at the local farmer’s market. In this way, they could gain a better understanding of what else might be missing from the diets of families who are poor.
Given the pandemic, they have not been able to meet with people in person, but have developed a survey which is available online in both English and Spanish. The survey includes a 24-hour food recall as well as some basic questions about where people live, and whether they receive benefits under programs such as SNAP or WIC.
Coupled with the harvest data, these surveys could help local farmers and community gardeners meet the nutritional needs of their less fortunate neighbors.