Food Factor

Food Factor

The University of the District of Columbia’s new business-incubator kitchen is instrumental to the success of its Urban Food Hub solution.


By Kiley Jacques

Located in the nation’s capital, the University of the District of Columbia’s (UDC) new business-incubator kitchen will soon be a highly visible model for changing the way people think about food security in urban areas. The result of a $280,000 award from the second annual Sustainable DC Innovation Challenge, the new kitchen—intended as a space for food and nutrition education as well as job-skills and entrepreneurship training—is projected to be fully operational in November 2015.

As one component of a larger Urban Food Hub model, the kitchen will serve lower-income residents looking for a leasable space from which to launch their own businesses. William Hare, UDC’s Associate Dean of Land Grant Programs, lists the Food Hub’s four components: food production, which includes field crops, hydroponic systems, and aquaponic systems; food preparation, which he describes as “taking the product and adding value to it”; food distribution; and food waste management. All are integral to UDC’s holistic vision for a food-secure city. The ultimate goal being to “integrate research and community education to enhance quality of life and develop economic opportunities for district residents,” says Hare.

“There is a paradigm shift in agriculture,” he adds. “It’s not going to change traditional production in terms of rural farming, but as more and more people migrate to cities and as more people become more health conscious and are more educated about nutrient-dense food that can be produced in a local community…more people will start to demand local foods and make healthier choices.”

Left: Dr. Dwane Jones of the Center for Sustainable Development College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences.

In part, that shift is what led to UDC’s conjunction with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Together they have identified five areas of priority to enhance food systems and production: Global Food Security, Food Safety, Sustainable Energy, Climate Change, and Childhood Obesity/Nutrition. The business-incubator kitchen will be a space in which to address some of these issues while also helping DC residents take steps toward self-employment. “We will use it also as a means for…training those who maybe have mom-and-pop recipes and want to become caterers or want to have their own line of food products,” explains Hare. “We have this opportunity to get them certified to work, standardize their recipes [for use] in a commercial kitchen, and [help] them start up and minimize liability.”


Above: The incubator kitchen is slated to open November 2015.

As a university-based endeavor, education will be the kitchen’s core. In addition to a brick and mortar facility, nutrition education and business training will be inherent in the program. Educators, like Hare and Dr. Dwane Jones, director of the Center for Sustainable Development College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) will provide the training. “It’s special because, to my knowledge, we are the only university that is doing this. It’s more prevalent in the commercial industry,” notes Dr. Jones.

The college comprises five land-grant centers, three of which will play a major role in the project—the Center for Sustainable Development; the Center for Nutrition, Diet, and Health; and the Center for Urban Agriculture, the last of which is the starting point for the food production and harvesting component of the model. “We are unique in that we are a land-grant university,” says Dr. Jones, “which means we have the task of taking education out from the main campus into the community—relevant research-based education.” UDC is also the only land-grant institution in the nation with an exclusively urban emphasis. They receive funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer agriculture-based programming. Every other land-grant university in the nation has a rural component. UDC does not. Their territories are strictly urban, which means they focus on micro- and small-scale urban farming. They work with community gardens and the DC Housing Authority, with whom they are developing a modern urban farm on three acres of vacant land; it is adjacent to a metro stop and easily accessed. They are also currently mapping underutilized and vacant lots as well as potential green roofs for future acquisition and use. Additionally, the university owns and operates a 143-acre research farm in nearby Beltsville, Maryland, that serves as an agricultural experiment station, where they test innovative ideas and technologies in order to replicate those ideas for application in the District. The university is also home to one of the largest, if not the largest, food production green roofs in the District.

The Center for Nutrition, Diet, and Health does the majority of related outreach and community education around the Food Hub’s mission. UDC currently has 483 sites including public schools, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits with which they partner to provide food handling certification training. They also do demonstrations at farmers’ markets. “We have the visibility already,” notes Hare. What was lacking, prior to the kitchen idea, was a mechanism for getting people properly trained to go into business for themselves. “We have had a lot of individuals express interest in this process, so we are hoping the commercial kitchen, in terms of the food preparation, will be able to support this initiative.”

Once the kitchen is up and running in November, interested parties can submit an application to be vetted by a panel. “They need to demonstrate their motivation,” says Dr. Jones. “Those who are accepted will receive technical support to be successful in the space.”

Workshops held at the congregations spread the word about mitigating waste, growing vegetables in the church gardens, and carpooling. Top right photo: Kathy Arnold; Left and bottom right photos: Kari R. Frey, FREYtography

Of course, the program’s results will be measured. Faculty members plan to assess the impact of the system in terms of how it is (or is not) creating “healthy people and a healthy city.” Those overseeing it will first capture baseline data and then use surveys and interviews to determine behavior modifications of participants and impacts on society at large. “There are many different facets we are pursuing with regard to that,” says Dr. Jones. “We call it the ‘So What Factor.’ We are engaging in all of these activities and projects and initiatives…so what? What does it mean to an individual? What does it mean to the community? What does it mean to the District as a whole? And because we are the nation’s capital, what does it mean for the nation, as other institutions and entities look to us for leadership?” There will be a full spectrum of analyses to follow. Dr. Jones calls it the “triple bottom line”—the social, environmental, and economic impacts of this project will be the true measure of its success.

In addition to the commercial kitchen space, UDC is launching a food truck—one whose purpose goes beyond straight food distribution. “We are designing and purchasing a nutrition and education vehicle…and using it to build Food Hubs—at least one in each ward of the district,” says Dr. Jones. It will be yet another training tool for aspiring entrepreneurs in the culinary industry. “It will be used as a mobile research and education vehicle.” According to Hare, the food truck is part of a process that integrates research into the Food Hub equation. “Every one of our centers has a role to play in supporting our Food Hubs in terms of research and community education. That’s how we are looking at it. We see it as a mechanism to continuously improve. It’s not a static system—it’s really dynamic.”