October 2015: Innovation Showcase Twitter Town Hall – Meet the Extension Educator from University of D.C.

Meet Dr. Sabine O’Hara, Dean and Director of Landgrant Programs, the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences of the University of the District of Columbia. Below is our Q+A with Dr. O’Hara, who will be answering your questions this Wednesday.

Q: UDC is the only urban land-grant university. What unique issues do you encounter as a result?

First, some background. Agriculture is not the first thing on the mind of urban populations. Agriculture has typically been associated with rural areas. Yet, for the first time in human history, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. In the U.S., it’s close to 80 percent.  We also face the prospect of feeding an additional two billion people on this globe in the next 20 years and we are running out of arable land. We also know that when food travels long distances, its nutritional value declines, and we add all kinds of transportation related emission to the atmosphere.

For all these reasons, we must reconsider the role urban communities can play as locations for food production. As we learn how to grow meaningful amounts of food in small urban spaces, we must also attend to the lost art of food preparation. For many reasons, urbanites have become unaccustomed to preparing fresh food.

This led us to the concept of Urban Food Hubs and its four components: (1) Food Production, (2) Food Preparation, (3) Food Distribution and (4) closing the loop through Waste and Water Management.

Q: How do food deserts affect or impact urban agriculture?

Urban Agriculture is a key solution to this problem by bringing fresh food to food deserts. Our Urban Food Hubs are centered on high efficiency food production systems, including bio-intensive, aquaponic and hydroponic systems that can produce a lot of food in a small space. Food production in urban communities can therefore supplement people’s income and provide access to fresh food. Yet, it can do more than that. Growing food can also be a business opportunity.

For instance, if you add to that the opportunity to process food and thus ‘add value,’ lets say by turning peppers into salsa, that offers another business opportunity through the food preparation component of the Food Hubs.

In addition to improving food access, our Urban Food Hubs contribute to also bring jobs to underserved communities, and they can bring the community together.

Q: Why is food security an important agricultural issue? 

Food security is defined by the USDA as “access by all people at all times to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life.” Low food security refers to a diet of reduced quality, variety, and desirability for some populations. To achieve food security, food must be (1) readily available at all times to all people, and (2) be of sufficient quality and nutritional value to sustain a healthy and active life.

The U.S. food system is vulnerable when it comes to food security. Sadly, many households are food insecure, which impacts their ability to be productive, able to learn, and be active contributors to their communities. These households do not have access to enough food and many others lack access to the right kind, or healthy food. In addition, the nutritional value of food has declined by almost 25 percent over the past 15 years.One reason is that food is traveling ever further distances before it is consumed.

Using Washington, D.C. as an example, there are eight census tracks in the city that qualify as food deserts (defined as fresh food being unavailable within a one-mile radius). Of the 520 food retailers in D.C., 88 percent do not offer any fresh produce. Not surprisingly, nutrition-related health problems like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity are especially high in these food desert neighborhoods.

Food insecurity is especially high in low income and minority neighborhoods. Again, the nation’s capital is a good example of this because we are a tale of two cities. Ward 8 has the lowest median income with $32,000 per year and 90 percent African-American residents. Ward 3 has a median income of $110,000 per year and an African-American population of 5 percent. Unemployment is 3.5 percent in Ward 3, compared to 24 percent in Ward 8.

Thirteen percent of D.C. households are food insecure and struggle with hunger; 19 percent experience food hardship and did not have enough money in the past year to buy food for themselves or their family, and 37 percent of households with children are unable to afford enough food. This is the highest rate of food insecurity among children across the entire U.S. Most of these food insecure households are located in our underserved neighborhoods in Ward 8, 7, and 5.

If we want people to be productive and contributing members of society we must first make sure that everyone, no matter where they live or their income level, has access to nutritious food.

Q: What does Cooperative Extension mean to you?

At the University of the District of Columbia—again, entirely urban in scope—we’ve translated the term Cooperative Extension into “community outreach” and “community education.” Our mission is to offer research based academic and community outreach programs that improve quality of life and economic opportunity that improve the quality of life and economic opportunity of people and communities in the District of Columbia and beyond.  This is precisely what Cooperative Extension programs are supposed to be doing. Our programs are delivered through five Centers:

  1. Center for Urban Agriculture
  2. Center for Sustainable Development (which includes the Water Resources Research Institute)
  3. Center for Nutrition, Diet and Health (which includes the Institute of Gerontology)
  4. Center for 4-H and Youth Development
  5. Architectural Research Institute

Each center conducts applied research so that what we teach in the community is grounded in cutting edge information and current knowledge. The Centers offer diverse services such as nutrition education in schools, food safety certification, green business development workshops, assistance with farmer’s markets and community gardens, and assessment services that determine soil and water quality, lead contamination and other environmental hazards.

While these offerings may be similar to other Extension programs, ours are specifically tailored to our local community, which happens to be 658,893 D. C. residents.

About Agriculture is America

Agriculture is America. In short, the agriculture industry — sustained in large part by the American land-grant university system through both Agricultural Experiment Stations and Cooperative Extension — is integral to jobs, national security, and health.

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