Food Justice with Brother Rashad and the Ujima Urban Farm
Brother Rashad Johnson, native Washingtonian and urban gardener, has been gardening in the District of Columbia for over 55 years. “Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” he says, mirroring the sentiments of Ron Finley, in his famous TedTalk. As a food justice advocate in Southeast DC, home to some of the District’s worst food deserts – or nutrition deserts, as he puts it – Brother Rashad uses the organizing skills he garnered from his time with Bread for the City’s Terrance Moore Organizing Institute to push back against food injustice.
He came to Bread for the City as a client and was impressed by the work the organization does in the Southeast community. Through a desire to give back also, he searched for volunteering opportunities with Bread and ended up becoming part of the first graduating class of BFC’s Terrance Moore Organizing Institute.
“Urban gardening is my form of organizing,” Brother Rashad told us. “What we’re doing here is what I started learning with Terrance Moore. We’re bringing the community together to overcome the challenges in accessing healthy food. We empower when we impart to the community that they don’t have to be dependent on toxic, unhealthy food, and then reintroduce them to their green thumbs.” His grandfather, a transplant from North Carolina to DC, had a eight-by-eight garden in his backyard where he grew watermelon, tomatoes, corn, greens and okra. Being introduced to urban gardening as a child (“I’d walk through the garden and taste everything”) was a rich experience that sparked interest in food justice.
The Ujima Urban Farm, where Brother Rashad organizes, is a project of the Union Temple Baptist Church (UTBC), with funding and logistic support from the 11th Street Bridge Project, the Kresge Foundation and the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). UTBC re-purposed land for its urban sustainable gardens where members from the community attend interactive workshops on food advocacy and urban gardening. On our visit there in July, students from the Kramer Junior High school discussed everything between the best practices in planting kale and squash, to the difference with grass-fed and grass-finished meat, and what that means for their health. “It’s a learning experience for both Ujima and the community,” Brother Rashad said. “So every opportunity that we have, we share best practices with the community and the community shares their techniques with us.”
Natalege Oure, another urban gardener with Ujima Urban Farm, shared with us her experience of living in a food desert. “All the grocery stores are far away and the quality of the merchandise in the neighborhood is poor. On 14th and Good Hope in Southeast, there was the Asian Food Warehouse and they sold fresh produce in the community. That is until they closed down and got replaced by a 7-Eleven on one side of the building and a dialysis center on the other. I find that ironic,” she says. This, according to the Ujima urban gardeners, is evidence that there is a market on bad health. A practice that disproportionately affects the black community in DC.
To combat some of this, Brother Rashad and his team also donate their produce through partners like the Ambassador Baptist Church, who distribute in bulk to the community on Saturdays. Last year, Ujima was able to donate large quantities of produce six times throughout the season. The project also donates directly to elders in the community, to people passers-by who show an interest in the project, and through the UTBC’s own ministry for persons experiencing homelessness, where the farm produce is used in the preparation of meals.
Ujima is fully funded for five years through its partners, after which it is expected that they should become self-sustained. The team of ten have certification through UDC as urban gardeners and are in the process of preparing for master gardener courses. Their next steps include acquiring a 30 ft by 60 ft hoop house within the next year so they can start planting all year round and to step up their advocacy efforts by helping community members plant their own produce at home in buckets the size of water coolers.
“We all can’t grow something. There is no reason why we all aren’t growing something so that we can say, ‘Guess what, I grew this and it’s pretty awesome’.”