Last month I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Sabine O’Hara, founding Dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability & Environmental Sciences, or CAUSES, at the University of the District of Columbia regarding the university’s Urban Food Hubs. Read on to see what she had to say about them, redesigning our food systems so that they are more sustainable and more equitable, the various environmental, health and educational benefits they can provide, the workplace skills they can impart and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere: To begin at the beginning, I was wondering if you’d share a little bit of background as to what the Urban Food Hubs are and how they came about.
Sabine O’Hara: Sure. I’m the founding Dean of CAUSES — the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability & Environmental Sciences — at the University of the District of Columbia. The university is a land-grant university, but since we’re the only land-grant university in the nation whose territory is exclusively urban, it’s not surprising that the university didn’t have a strong focus on its land-grant programs.
In 2010/2011, the Board of Trustees decided it was time to give this some attention and to see how the land-grant programs — and their unique character, as the only exclusively urban program — could become more in line with the mission of the university. That background in and of itself is interesting because we’re the product of three precursor institutions. One was an 1862 land-grant, which was the Washington Technical Institute, and the other two were HBCUs or historically black colleges and universities. So, you have this really interesting convergence of two HBCUs and a land-grant in an urban context. Fast-forward to when they formed the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability & Environmental Sciences, which was almost ten years ago now. It was right at the cusp of when people started to pay attention to urban agriculture and began to recognize that, in an increasingly urbanizing society — which we are in the United States and, of course, the world is urbanizing as well — that perhaps this would be an important thing to do, to focus on an urban food system and what it means is the majority of consumers live in the urbanscape, but food production is almost entirely relegated to the rural space. After they made the decision to make this a focus, and to form this new college, a national search was conducted and I was the product of that search.
I’ve been here a little over seven years, as the founding Dean of CAUSES, and it has been a great opportunity. Sometimes you’re lucky — you’re in the right place at the right time — but as the university made this decision to focus on urban agriculture and urban sustainability, a lot of other places around the nation and around the world started to pay more attention to food systems — and not only to food systems, but to food systems as an important exemplar or anchor in terms of ‘What do we need to do with these ever-growing metro areas and cities? How can we make them more sustainable?’ If these cities — and the accumulation of people, services and resources in these cities — only function by drawing on their surrounding areas, that’s not really all that sustainable. So, how can we make them more sustainable in and of themselves?
I think it’s fair to say it’s been a growing focus, so we were just at the right place at the right time, because the District of Columbia, of course, is an area that has no rural space. We have some spaces you may consider more peri-urban, but then a lot of it is very urban with pretty high densities throughout the entire district. We would not ever do the kind of work that other land-grants do, because the charge of a land-grant university is to increase capacity in the regions that we serve. That kind of eliminates any work with corn, soybeans, dairy and the kinds of things other land-grant universities would be doing, because those kinds of things would never really contribute to capacity building in the District of Columbia. Our focus is very different, because building capacity here means improving public health, addressing food deserts and underserved neighborhoods, improving green infrastructure to mitigate flooding by better managing stormwater, improving energy efficiency, mitigating heat islands — a whole long list of very gratifying and useful research areas, but I think it is fair to say that given the largely cash crop focus of most of our land-grant universities in the nation, the kinds of topics I just listed for you wouldn’t be their bread-and-butter.
DeCanniere: Right. Sounds like there are some significant differences, to say the least.
O’Hara: We’re about very small-scale, decentralized food systems but, as a nation and as a world, I think we’re learning a few lessons about resilience and the need for us to pay more attention as to how we buffer ourselves better against shock — external and internal — and what that means for how we think about and redesign some of our systems that have been very large-scale and very centralized.
If the majority of your population lives in cities, and your cities are not resilient, that’s a recipe for disaster. It’s an unusual focus and an unusual topic, but I think it is also true to say that this idea of more decentralized systems that are smaller-scale, that are more resilient and that work more like nature works — I think that is a growing focus, just because we need to think more deeply and more effectively, and we need effective collaborations between those who do applied research and those who actually implement on the ground.
DeCanniere: And while I am perhaps speaking a bit broadly here, it seems that, for a long time, there was an under-appreciation for the planet and all it does for us, and a sort of focus on attempting to subdue or overcome nature rather than a recognition of the importance of living in harmony with it — a recognition of the importance of living sustainably. So, it’s nice to see that there is an increased recognition of the importance of that now, rather than continuing to try to subdue or overcome or reshape it in some way.
O’Hara: Exactly, because if we think that we would have a chance — that is anthropocentric hubris, if anything, because nature is going to win, right? We’re part of it. We’re part of that system we call ‘nature’ or that we call ‘the environment.’ I’m fully aware, of course, of efforts that are underway to colonize the moon and Mars and whatnot, but I think that’s a long-shot and we would be better off if we focused more on our own planet and how we live more in harmony, and in true systems collaboration with the systems that make our planet function.
DeCanniere: And though it is perhaps a bit overused now, ‘There is no Planet B,’ as they say. Even if there were, is that really how we want to live? Do we just want to keep trashing out one planet and then look for another to colonize, and then ultimately just trash that one out and so on and so forth? That just makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.
O’Hara: Right. Plus, we all know there is no equality in who will be colonizing those new planets and who will be left behind.
DeCanniere: Also a very fair point. I think that human history has certainly borne that out.
O’Hara: There are always winners and losers when we have these big plans, and so I would rather pursue a strategy that makes for a good quality of life for as many people as possible — my aspiration would be for all, but that may be a far reach. Included in that, if this whole thing is going to work, is not just the well-being of people but the well-being of ecosystems that we, as people, depend upon. We are, of course, at the top of the food chain — so there’s a whole lot of other stuff that supports us.
DeCanniere: Which I think can all too often go unrecognized. I was just discussing this with somebody yesterday. I don’t drive, so I was going somewhere with one of those ride-share services, and the driver and I actually had a bit of a conversation about climate change. Basically, they said they weren’t sure about this whole ‘global warming’ thing, because it has been so warm here overall. I tried to explain how they’re basically confusing climate and weather, and how they’re only seeing how things are here. They weren’t looking at the whole picture — at the data on a global scale. So, I think people are starting to have more of the conversations and are starting to think about these larger issues. They may not all be absolutely convinced that something is happening — or, if they are, that human activity has anything to do with it — but at least we’re having these important conversations more often. Admittedly, we should have been having these conversations much earlier, but it’s better than nothing.
O’Hara: That’s encouraging. At the same time, it’s also not surprising. You live out in Chicago and, in your immediate vicinity, you’ve had all kinds of climate-related events over this past year — anything from a ‘polar vortex’ to the flooding that has been pretty unprecedented, and now an unprecedented string of tornadoes that have even reached us here on the east coast, which is very unusual. What people don’t understand, as you just explained, is there’s a difference between a change in climate and weather events related to that, and the simplest way I often start to explain climate events is that when you have warming taking place — even in some [other] places on the planet — that will increase evaporation. If you look at the planet from space, you can see how much water there is. Relative to land mass, we have a lot of water, similar to our own bodies. If temperatures increase — even if only in some places and not uniformly — you increase evaporation, and that evaporation sits in your atmosphere and has to come down somewhere. We have a hydrological cycle that we are of course aware of, but then as evaporation increases, the precipitation has to come down someplace, and so you begin to see these changing patterns — what we experience as weather events. They change pretty dramatically not because there is a sort of continuous increase in temperature, but because there’s an increase in fluctuations. It becomes more erratic. It becomes more unpredictable. It’s still May and already, here in D.C., we have 90 degree weather and 90 percent humidity. That’s the kind of weather we normally have in August. I think you’re right that it’s just enough at this point for people to notice and start talking about it, and they want to talk about it in the most unusual situations. So, I think the awareness is starting to reach the general public, beyond those of us who’ve been dealing with climate issues for a long time.
Cities are an important place to look, because so many of us live in cities and metro areas. Your own example of not owning a car, and of how you take public transportation, is a good example of how that accumulation of people and services in a limited amount of space offers opportunities to really reconsider how we live our lives. There are great opportunities to look at cities as places where we can begin to question how we’ve been doing things, how we can do better, and how we can become more sustainable.
Being a land-grant university, the food system was a logical place to start. If I use my environmental economics speak for a minute, the food system addresses very important social and environmental externalities. The big one being public health on the social side of things. Do people have access to food, and information about how to use food that is healthy for them and that increases their quality of life — their fitness, ability to have energy and to do things — or is it food that makes them sluggish and sick? The latter would be food that is also a tremendous burden on the public purse and, thus, a quantifiable negative externality. If we address that, that’s a positive step in the right direction. The same is true with respect to environmental externalities. Food, if it is plant-based, can absorb moisture, can have a cooling effect, and is a great way to use photosynthesis — which is really the big energy-efficiency funnel of the planet. So, the food system is a logical place to begin thinking about how these systems may be designed in a way that would make them more sustainable and more resilient and, while we’re at it, address the negative externalities on the social side and on the environmental side. If we’re able to turn these negatives into positives, we have not only improved the food system, but we’ve had a number of indirect and induced impacts from that redesign of our food system that have a number of other benefits.
Given that this is part of a complex system, when we talk about an Urban Food Hub, we not only ask whether we can produce meaningful amounts of food in small, urban spaces where land is at a premium, but how we can prepare it in ways that contribute to health and public knowledge about what is good to eat and what’s not so good — how can we change knowledge and behavior? The third component is food distribution because, of course, this is not an equally distributed problem. There are neighborhoods where there is a high level of awareness of healthful behaviors and where there are ample grocery stores and organic produce and whatnot, and then there are neighborhoods on the opposite end of the spectrum. They lack access to fresh food or information about nutrition is lacking.
DeCanniere: Right. It really does seem to be a problem that many cities around the country are dealing with.
O’Hara: And because it’s not equally distributed, you really need to think about how to improve the distribution. If you produce organic produce for the high-end market — microgreens and such — you’re not going to make a dent in the preventable, food-related illnesses in neighborhoods that are deprived of access to healthy food, right? So, this is a distribution issue. If you’re a small grower, you need to produce high-revenue crops, but if you are really trying to impact public health, you need to acknowledge the neighborhoods where some of our health problems are the most intense also happen to be the lowest income neighborhoods, and they would not be able to benefit from high-revenue crops. So, how do we deal with this conundrum of distribution?
Last, but not least, the fourth component of the Urban Food Hub is waste and water management. It becomes an example of a circular economy — albeit sector specific, but nonetheless a circular economy, where attention to water reuse, waste recycling, and energy efficiency are built in at the front end and are not an afterthought at the back end. So, those are the four components of the Urban Food Hub: food production, food preparation, food distribution and closing the loop through waste and water management.
DeCanniere: It certainly seems to be a much more sensible, more holistic approach to the whole thing. It makes much more sense to me than this sort of piecemeal approach that it would seem has traditionally been used to look at these various issues.
O’Hara: I think one of the issues we’re dealing with is that for far too long we have looked at our economy as a throughput system. It has been ‘Okay. Let’s take these resources, extract them, and process them into useful products.’ And then it’s like ‘Oops! There are emissions and there’s waste.’ That’s not a smart way of doing it. Not only are the resources finite, but every time you process something you are using energy. That means you are generating entropy and heat. That is not recoverable. That is waste. How about we start thinking at the front end about how we can design things to minimize emissions and waste, and to process things in such a way as to maximize energy efficiency and minimize entropy generation? That would be a pretty smart way to do things because, last I checked, we’ve not been able to break either the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the Law of Gravity.
DeCanniere: And as far as equality goes, but it seems to me that many of these so-called ‘externalities’ many were so happy to ignore for so long — things like pollution and waste and all of that — tended to most severely impact some of our lowest income neighborhoods. At least broadly speaking.
O’Hara: Right. And again, that’s sort of a distribution issue. if you think about it for a minute, systems tend to be circular, right? So, they tend to be connected in sometimes very unexpected ways. You do something over here, and something over there is happening. So, that means systems consist of processes that depend on both sources and sinks. We have tended to pay a lot more attention to the sources — and for good reason. I don’t mean to in any way knock that.
So, resource efficiency is certainly a important focus, but what we’ve overlooked is maybe we’re running out of sinks faster than sources. Sinks are the emissions, the waste and therefore the ecosystem services that help process these leftover materials — waste materials, emission materials — and we’re dependent on them. Oftentimes, they are forgotten not only on the environmental side, where we pay very little attention to sink capacities until we’ve run out of them until we say ‘Oops. Where does all this stuff come from?’ Well, it’s coming from the fact that it can no longer be processed, right? You have nitrate contamination of the groundwater because you’ve pretty much exhausted the buffer capacity in your soil. So, now you’re getting these spikes in the groundwater.
The same is true on the social side. There are forgotten communities and forgotten people — those who are absorbing these waste and emission materials, if you will, on the social side. In fact, our bodies are sinks, too, right? They bioaccumulate waste and emissions, whether we like it or not. Just as we’ve paid little attention to the sink capacity of the environment, we’ve paid little attention to who in our communities is responsible for these sink capacities? Who are the ones absorbing the stress and who are dealing with families’ need to rest, communities needs to get together? Who are they? Often, they’re women. They have been marginalized people. So, this forgotten sink problem is both an environmental one and a social one.
DeCanniere: Not to get too off-topic, but you’re starting to even see it in the various changes within the recycling industry. We tend to send a lot of our stuff off to other countries as a means of dealing with the waste, and I just read that Malaysia is going to be sending some of the recycling back to the UK and US and other countries, because it doesn’t meet their standards. So, I think internationally, people are becoming aware that these places cannot just be these dumping grounds. I think that many of these places that have received much of our waste have also tended to be more marginalized communities or countries, and they cannot just be seen as dumping grounds for our waste.
O’Hara: Exactly. China has just changed the game here because they’re now refusing to take a lot of our plastics. Indonesia was next in line, but now Indonesia and Malaysia are saying they cannot take it all. It’s impossible. We’re producing too much waste. It’s going to end up back on our own doorstep. Some sectors have made some strides — I’m thinking about the automobile industry, for example, where we’re doing better in terms of designing automobiles where at least some parts are going to be reusable. There has been more of a focus on a closed-loop design or circular design, but we’re far from having that kind of recognition for our economy as a whole. What’s interesting is that we’ve made some strides in some of the manufacturing sectors. We’ve made some strides in energy. We’ve made some strides in transportation. However, we haven’t made a lot of strides in terms of agriculture.
Agriculture is a huge freshwater consumer. It draws on fertilizer, petrochemicals, pesticides, et cetera. Yet, we’ve paid very little attention to whether we can redesign our food system so it can make equal strides in terms of reusing and shrinking its carbon footprint, its energy footprint overall. We wouldn’t ever suggest to you that urban agriculture can solve all of these issues. It cannot. When people ask me ‘Do you think the Food Hubs — even if you build many more of them — can address the food needs of Washington D.C.?,’ the answer is ‘No. Absolutely not.’ That said, what would be a good place to start would be to say ‘Can we produce food that is high in nutrients and highly perishable in cities where it is closest to the consumer?’ So, you cut down on the cold chain, you cut down on the transportation, and you improve the quality — the nutrient quality, in particular — of food that is highly perishable.
That leaves plenty of things for the peri-urban and rural spaces, because if you’re in a city like Chicago or like Washington D.C., this is not like Detroit or Baltimore, where the bottom has fallen out of the economy and we now have neighborhoods where they’re going to give you that house just to take it off their hands. The property values are very low. We’re in the opposite situation. Property value is high here. So, this is a very different situation for urban agriculture. Urban agriculture needs to collaborate with public health and with stormwater management — as one green infrastructure example — so that it becomes viable, even in high land-value areas. Producing corn and soybeans here is not anything we would suggest, because there’s simply not enough revenue in it, nor would grains or some of our root vegetables fall into that category of highly perishable that would suffer from storage and transportation. Really, the more sensible thing is to look at it as a system, and to say ‘OK. Can we look at this in a spatial manner?’ Maybe we can look at it as concentric circles, where we produce high-value, highly nutrient-dense, highly perishable food closest to where the consumer lives, and those types of foods that are not as highly perishable and do not suffer as much from storage and transportation can be moved to the rural areas. Given the projections of population growth, it seems to me there’d be enough for everybody.
DeCanniere: And it also seems people are becoming more aware of, and engaged with, where their food is coming from and the need to decentralize and perhaps get more locally-sourced food.
O’Hara: I think so. I think there is a growing awareness of the benefits of locally-grown, locally-sourced. Some people just like to learn how to grow some of their own food to supplement their income. Some people find it therapeutic to reconnect more with nature than they have been in our urban neighborhoods. So, there are many reasons as to why people would feel drawn to a more local food system that reacquaints them with where our food comes from and how we, as humans, are connected to it.
DeCanniere: As you also allude to, things are kind of linked when you’re making policy or trying to move forward as a community to be more sustainable. It seems that, as you say, it’s also a good way of bringing down healthcare costs. Providing fresh, locally grown produce can be a way of controlling and reducing ballooning healthcare costs.
O’Hara: Absolutely. These are preventable health issues, if we cut down on diabetes, hypertension due to high amounts of sugar and highly processed foods, on obesity — if we cut down on these preventable health issues, it would really make a dent in our public health budget. These diseases have reached pandemic levels in some of our neighborhoods. Oftentimes, it’s those neighborhoods where people can least afford to be burdened with health issues. You also know there’s plenty of research that shows that even at a young age, eating habits influence our ability to concentrate — the amount of energy we have — and so, particularly as it relates to children and young people, it goes beyond immediate health impacts and physical impacts and impacts the ability to be successful in the future.
DeCanniere: Right. And a lot of these are communities where perhaps your nearest source of food is a convenience store. You’re not going to find all that much that is nutritious in many of those places. Perhaps there are some exceptions to the rule but, by and large, much of what is offered may be quick and may be inexpensive upfront, but there are other costs down the road.
O’Hara: You know, the other thing we’ve found in some of our neighborhoods is that when you’ve lived in neighborhoods in which access to fresh, unprocessed food has been very limited or is lacking altogether is that after two or three generations, you also lose the knowledge of what to do with this unprocessed food. So, people have resorted to the kinds of venues that you’ve described — convenience stores or gas stations — for their food and it’s highly processed. When you have neighborhoods where that has persisted for a while, you need to refocus on building the knowledge of what to do with unprocessed food.
DeCanniere: Which would make sense. Many, if not most of us who live in an urban environment, aren’t all that connected to where their food comes from to begin with, but I think that neighborhoods that are, in effect, food deserts are even more divorced from the whole thing.
O’Hara: More recently there have been other phenomena that people have been paying attention to. Some of our psychologists here have become interested in Nature Deficit Syndrome, particularly among children and young people because of their persistent disconnect from nature. These are children who’ve never walked barefoot in the grass, who don’t know what an earthworm feels like, who’ve never seen a live carrot. There’s a real impact from that kind of deprivation that we haven’t even begun to fully explore.
DeCanniere: I just read an article, and it actually talks about a study back in 2005 or so, that was about that very issue — and I’d imagine that it is even more prevalent in those communities that are sort of more isolated from nature. That said, with the rise of technology and so much more time being spent indoors on pursuits that perhaps spoon feed you entertainment, I think people across the board are more and more cut off from nature. They’re spending more time than ever inside, in front of screens.
O’Hara: I think that’s right, and we have some groups in our population — you might say some cohorts, to use the social science jargon — who have long been aware of that. For example, veterans will tell you they find working in agriculture or gardening to be therapeutic. They find it calming. We’ve had experiences with children, where we know that when they can be outside and have a safe place to run around in and experience nature, it releases stress. Again, there’s been some work done on that. As you said, it’s been probably in the last ten years or so that some attention has been paid to that, but it’s a fairly new area of focus for us. I can tell you just anecdotally that when we take children out to our research farm and we have an area there where we grow root vegetables — and of course we have quite a few hydroponic and aquaponic systems, so that we can take advantage of small growing spaces and apply all the knowledge we have of the nutrient cycle or the hydrological cycle to these systems, they are tremendous learning experiences. There are kids who’ve never been interested in chemistry or, more broadly, STEM, who become fascinated with that. Oftentimes, the highlight of the day is pulling carrots, because they’ve never seen a carrot grow with the green stuff on it, and that they’re not all about an inch or two long and come in plastic bags.
DeCanniere: For one thing, it certainly sounds like it would inspire more creativity.
O’Hara: Yes. I think that’s absolutely right. What’s interesting is that we have some student groups now who are exploring food systems as a basis for entrepreneurship. Some of the things they came up with, and some of the things our community collaborators come up with, are just absolutely fascinating. They’re much more creative and innovative than my staff could ever be. So, having that conversation with people who’ve not historically been involved in agriculture or the food system is very beneficial, because it brings different aspects together. So, that’s also a very rewarding aspect of this work.
We have a collaboration, for example, with a school and some of the students have already been in the criminal justice system. So, the school then provides high school diplomas and GEDs for that student population, and we’ve built a hydroponic system for them, and they’re using it for STEM education but also for workforce development — to improve the workforce skills, including the soft skills of these students. When you’re working in a food environment like this, food safety is absolutely paramount, and the system needs to be regularly checked and maintained, and the plants need to be tended to. So, if it’s your time to show up for your shift, you need to show up for your shift. There is no way around it, because if that filter isn’t cleaned, then there’s a problem. So, it has been a really interesting collaboration to see a hydroponic system really functioning very well in the context of a school environment and the many different ways in which it can contribute to the learning experience — both on the academic side and on the workforce side. So, those are really great collaborations in the urban food systems space.
DeCanniere: It sounds like some of the skills are more specific to agriculture or to green infrastructure, but it also sounds like some other skills are more applicable to workplaces in general. So, whether they want to go into those kinds of fields or not, it sounds like there is a lot they take away from the experience that they could use pretty much anyplace.
O’Hara: Right. Things like dependability and accountability. When you work with food plants, these are living systems. You’re not working with something mechanical — like, for example, working in a manufacturing environment. You’re working with living systems, and I think young people understand that very quickly. They understand what that means in terms of the responsibility that they are taking on when they’re part of a team that works with live systems — even more so when you get into aquaponics, for example, because then you have the very direct example of fish in the system. If you don’t change the filter or the pump goes down, and there’s no oxygen in the system, you actually have dead fish. There is very little tolerance for someone not doing their job, because there are big implications for that. These kinds of live systems can really help people regain a sense of connectedness, including the responsibility that comes with a connected system, or of being part of a connected system.
Dr. Sabine O’Hara is Dean and Director of Landgrant Programs for the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). As Dean of CAUSES, she is responsible for academic, research and community outreach programs in the tradition of landgrant universities, and is leading UDC’s efforts to building a cutting edge model for urban agriculture that improves the quality of life and economic opportunity for urban populations.
Dr. O’Hara is a respected author, researcher and higher education executive, and is well known for her expertise in sustainable economic development, global education and executive leadership. She has experience in virtually every aspect of university administration including curriculum development, strategic planning, program accreditation, international partnerships and research collaborations.
Dr. O’Hara is a strong advocate of higher education who believes that education cannot merely provide answers to our questions, but must also question our answers. She is the founder of Global Ecology LLC, the 10th President of Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and held faculty and administrative positions at: Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota; Green Mountain College, Poultney, Vermont; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York; and Executive Director of the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, a preeminent international exchange organization that administers the Fulbright Scholar Program.
A native of Germany, Dr. O’Hara earned a doctorate in environmental economics and a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Göttingen. She serves on the board of directors of several national and international organizations. She is the President Elect of the International Society for Ecological Economics, an International Advisory Board member of King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and is a reviewer and editorial board member of several academic journals.
To learn more about the University of the District of Columbia’s Center for Urban Agriculture & Gardening Education, please visit their website.