How Turning Vacant Buildings Into Urban Farms Can Help Eliminate Food Deserts and Reduce Emissions

Dec 14, 2016 by


One woman’s mission to erase a food desert in Washington, D.C., tackles both nutrition and the climate.

Locals Grow Smart, Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Food Tank

For Nadia Robinson of D.C.-based Locals Grow Smart, erasing food deserts means transforming the community that raised her. Growing up in Washington, D.C.’s Northeast side, Robinson spent hours in the kitchen and garden with her mother and grandmother, who grew up on a farm.

While fresh meals were readily available at her home, she noticed her neighbors struggled with nutrition education and access to fresh produce, often settling for highly processed options. District-level food justice efforts commissioned by First Lady Michelle Obama target the neighborhood, but Robinson sensed a void—her community needed a multi-functional pillar to address more than nutrition. With its 3,000 square foot (914.4 square meters) greenhouse, Locals tackles four problems—food insecurity, job training, feedback loops between climate change and traditional farming, and vacant buildings in city centers.

Three years ago, while a college student in Syracuse, Robinson built a small garden out of reclaimed construction materials in the basement of her apartment building. After graduating as a bioengineering and entrepreneurship major, Robinson returned to the Northeast side to transform a vacant building into the first of what she hopes will be many vertical urban farms in D.C.

She found that growing a small business, especially at twenty-two, required a relentlessly positive attitude. “If I failed, at least somebody else could learn from my failures and move forward,” she told Food Tank. “Urban farming is fundamentally non-traditional and requires thinking outside the box.”

She remains adamantly committed to her mission of creating a community “pillar” by offering mentorships to public school students and recent graduates in need of job skills. By renovating empty urban spaces, Locals boosts the area’s economic stability. The proprietary aquaponics design yields eighty-percent more produce per unit of area than traditional field farming, while using no soil and ninety-percent less land and water.

The farm partners with local grocers to expand access and further reduce climate impact by reducing grocers’ reliance on produce transported long distances. On average, Locals yields 3,458 pounds (1,568.5 kilograms) per month, composed primarily of micro greens, edible flowers, and herbs in addition to a small scale research and development project work shopping mini vegetables and organic feed crops. Locals is looking to deepen its impact by incorporating more area nonprofits and educational centers.

Due to D.C.’s unique district status, Locals works with neighboring Maryland’s farm agencies for funding, mentorship, and zoning regulations. Regarding the latter, Robinson notes that indoor gardening operations register as small businesses, so are not vulnerable to the same strict zoning policies. Because of this, her operation has faced few policy hurdles.

Policymakers are starting to catch up with the urban agriculture movement, but for the time being, small urban farms rely on one another for support and trade, two aspects Robinson hopes to see thriving in the near future. “When you’re growing specific crops, like micro greens, it’s hard to market,” she told Food Tank. Robinson notes the benefit for all parties when local producers trade expertise and goods and plans to foster those connections in coming years. For eager green thumbs, Robinson suggests to “cultivate your passion and patience…things won’t always go your way.” Locals welcomes volunteers as they open their second farming location in D.C.

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