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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Greenest of them all: Ekua Hudson

Greenest of them all: Senior Ekua Hudson tackles food insecurity in the District

Non-profit brings vertical farming to urban schools

When the coronavirus pandemic worsened food insecurity in her hometown, Ekua Hudson, a senior in American University’s College of Arts and Sciences, decided to change it.

In Orlando, Florida, Hudson went door to door gathering donations to redistribute community groceries. Now utilizing her family background in farming, Hudson is tackling food insecurity in the District as the founder of The Food For Thought Foundation

“I heard so many people’s stories. Redistribution is great, food banks are great,” Hudson said. “But, what we could do with the opportunity we have to raise money is make a structural solution.”

FTF uses hydroponic farming, a technique of growing plants in water-based nutrients instead of soil, to bridge the gap between grocery stores and neighborhood investment.

Hudson drew on conversations with DeJuan Mason, manager of Curbside Groceries, to better understand food supply and demand. She learned that even with the opening of new grocery stores, residents are likely to continue buying the same canned goods out of habit.

“What hydroponics is, is a method to bring growing into the city, to take it out of the hands of commercial farmers or big supply-chain agriculture,” Hudson said. “Because you don’t need soil, you can do it inside; because you can do it inside, you can do it year-round.”

Using FTF’s after-school program, Farms For Thought, Hudson and her volunteers teach an agricultural technology curriculum at local high schools. Students learn to assemble a vertical farm that operates autonomously and can be controlled via Wi-Fi. 

Alongside the practical application of computer science, students engage with modules on food justice and food insecurity. Now dubbed “Healthy Food Hubs” by FTF, the schools distribute locally-grown produce to the neighborhood. 

“It’s really hard to get a grocery store to try and invest in a low-income neighborhood,” Hudson said. “So what we’re doing is trying to place access in places that everybody has.”

A 2023 report from the Capital Area Food Bank found one-third of D.C. residents are food insecure, and a corroborating report from Feeding America reports one in seven D.C. children face food insecurity.

In the same report, CAFB said Black and Hispanic households are disproportionately affected by food insecurity, along with nearly equal rates of food insecurity among unemployed and employed residents. Among higher-earning households, with an average regional income of $120,000, food insecurity affected one in five families.

CAFB listed the major drivers of food insecurity in the D.C. area as protracted and uneven effects of the pandemic, a rollback in government assistance and record-setting levels of inflation.

Food deserts — urban areas where residents have little to no access to affordable or good-quality fresh foods — make up 11 percent of D.C., of which 82 percent is concentrated in Wards 7 and 8, according to the D.C. Policy Center. Hudson demonstrated the formation of food deserts using her hometown.

“Orlando was a business district back in the 1800s when we had slavery and sharecroppers,” Hudson said. “They would place Black people on the outskirts of the city — the business district at the time was agricultural — they would come in, do manual labor and then they would go to the outskirts of the city.”

The result, Hudson explained, was concentric circles of isolation where investment zones pocketed the borders of Black communities.

“So in my hometown, you can have a grocery store in one neighborhood and then you can go down the street into another neighborhood and it’s a food desert,” Hudson said. “There’s a huge structural inequity there.”

The people that need fresh produce most are the ones who don’t have time to become a farmer, Hudson said. FTF’s aim is for hydroponics to remove that barrier by completing most of the work.

Before entering D.C. Public Schools, Hudson spent three years putting hydroponics to the test in the AU Design and Build Lab using Arduino, an open-source electronics platform. Hydroponics’ introduction to the classroom happened by chance.

Former AU professor Kathryn Walters-Conte heard about Hudson’s project and connected her to a relative working at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast who offered her a pilot program.

FTF’s biggest obstacle to tackling food insecurity isn’t the machines; it’s their application, Hudson said. A major part of Farms For Thought is destigmatizing community involvement in local food production.

“How are you gonna tell somebody that’s working that they should farm or garden?” Hudson said. “It’s already hard to find the time to do that as a college student, and you don’t have a nine to five.” 

Beyond the classroom, FTF hosts food drives and a cook-along series for community members to share and learn new recipes. In collaboration with the RECIPES network at AU, FTF tracks current legislation and initiatives to advance equitable food access.

In the long term, Hudson said she hopes using a reliable resource like hydroponics will empower food-insecure communities and eventually contribute to a permanent solution to food inequity.

“What we try to do through the curriculum is reframe the way we think about food and our involvement in it,” Hudson said. “We’re basically trying to re-enfranchise these communities by saying, ‘You have the right to partake in this.’”

This article was edited by Soumya Sahay, Zoe Bell, Patricia McGee and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Olivia Citarella. 

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