Three-Part Solution

Three-Part Solution

A food bank, plus a demonstration garden, plus an outdoor classroom equals a recipe for feeding the capital’s hungry.


By Kiley Jacques

The flexible, multipurpose studio—an “Urban Food Studio”—will provide the CAFB with an all-season space for gardening, cooking education classes, and workshops.

There’s a misconception about hunger in D.C.—one that suggests it’s only the homeless who use food banks. “It’s an expensive city,” notes Susie Westrup, LEED AP BD+C, manager, Paladino and Company as well as Greenbuild 2015 Legacy Project co-chair. “There are [approximately] 700,000 people in D.C. who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.” The fact is many working lower- and middle-class families visit food banks for supplemental groceries to make ends meet.

One of those food banks is the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB), with headquarters in Northeast D.C.

This year alone, CAFB distributed 42 million pounds of food (the equivalent of 35 million meals) to 540,3002 people living in D.C. and six surrounding communities. Through direct service and a network of more than 500 partner agencies, CAFB feeds the hungry—though its mission goes far beyond the distribution of dry goods. To date, CAFB has implemented multiple measures aimed at nutrition education and skills training—all of which began with an onsite Urban Demonstration Garden.

In 2012, staff decided that a hands-on food growing experience would benefit the community. Toward that end, the demonstration garden was built and has had that very effect since beginning operations. The garden is used to teach gardening and nutrition basics to agency partners, who in turn, bring those lessons back to their own communities, where they disseminate the information further. Most of the garden’s produce is given away to food assistance partners; the primary focus of the garden is to demonstrate effective urban farming practices.

With both the food bank and the garden operating at full speed, it became clear a third element was needed—a classroom. Enter Greenbuild 2015 and the Legacy Project. As the garden lacked a designated space for key education programs, a flexible, multipurpose outdoor structure was proposed and dubbed the “Urban Food Studio.” The sheltered classroom will provide the CAFB an all-season space for gardening, cooking classes, workshops, and events. It will also give garden volunteers a much-needed place to eat and rest.

The Urban Food Studio is the brainchild of M. J. Crom, now-former food growing capacity coordinator at the CAFB, who wanted to bring gardening to the forefront of the community. With Greenbuild 2015 scheduled to take place November 18-20, 2015 in Washington, D.C., the Legacy Project Committee, the Greenbuild Host Committee chairs, and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) staff members met last October to set up a process for determining just what the Legacy Project would be. Westrup and the group issued a RFP to the public for which they received 11 responses; they were ranked and ultimately narrowed down to four finalists. Attendees at their “Green Tie” event were asked to help determine which proposal should be this year’s Legacy Project. “All four of the finalists were so great that it was very hard for us to come to a consensus,” explains Westrup. “So we [decided] to let it be a vote.” The food bank won the most votes. Interestingly, all four finalists were projects related to food security and food deserts in D. C. “The committee ended up picking one that [addresses] this relevant issue.”

Top: Susie Westrup at the demonstration garden at the CAFB. Bottom: Matthew Noe, LEED green associate at HKS architects, at the CAFB. Photos by Ryan Smith

Furthering the food bank’s mission, the Urban Food Studio will catalyze CAFB’s aim to impact food security through education around the growing of healthy foods. “You can’t teach 700,000 people, and 700,000 people can’t make their way to the food bank, but they can go somewhere in their local community and they can learn how to do something down the road from where they live. That’s why the 500-plus organizations CAFB is already working with are the target,” explains Westrup.

Though they were already teaching in the garden, they were doing so with makeshift accommodations. “The outdoor classroom that is the Legacy Project is a shelter with a functioning kitchen—some of these classes will go beyond how to grow and [will demonstrate] how to cook a healthy meal,” notes Westrup. “Then the partner organizations can do the same thing. It’s this ladder of knowledge, a network that they can spread throughout the city.” She points to the fact that many of those agencies don’t have land on which to grow, so they need to be creative. People are learning how to build gardens in unconventional ways using limited means—maybe they grow in buckets or tubs or kiddie pools. “M. J., the head grower, teaches them how to grow on a budget with reused materials.”

Volunteers put the finishing touches on the studio and surrounding grounds, which will help
the food bank fulfill its mission of ending food insecurity.

Staff from those agencies will arrive at the site—with its food bank demonstration, garden, and outdoor classroom—and learn how to build and grow a self-sustaining garden in their own neighborhood. The food bank can’t supply all the people in D. C. who need food, but they can enable others to do so. “They are limited by their site, but in a way it’s a much more sustainable method because they are teaching [other organizations] how locally grown food can come from these neighborhoods.”

The garden was the first phase of how the land at the food bank was to be developed. HKS Architects—the firm that submitted the winning proposal in response to CAFB’s need for an outdoor, sheltered structure for education and respite—had an existing relationship with the food bank. HKS helped bring to life the second phase—the food studio. “They are the ones who connected the dots,” notes Westrup. “They won the bid and were given $10,000 by Greenbuild to bring them an outdoor teaching kitchen.”

“It’s a pretty simple structure,” says Matthew Noe, a designer with HKS, describing the Urban Food Studio as having concrete columns, a metal frame, and a deck (donated by Ipe Deck) with permeable pavers. A berm wall was created with excavated soil to serve as an additional growing area, and there’s a rainwater cistern and reclaimed-wood benches. They also received a grant from Community Forklift that they used to acquire reclaimed steel. A “living wall” for planting uses reclaimed pallets from the food bank, and a space was developed for growing shade and fruit trees.

“We tried to incorporate all these little elements that are semi DIY to inspire the community to do some of these things at home and to make it more sustainable or eco-friendly for urban gardening,” explains Noe. In addition to all of what takes place under its roof, the building itself will serve as an educational tool. “We looked at how we can leverage a building to teach the community.”

The structure will accommodate 30 to 40 people attending cooking and growing demonstrations and nutrition classes. “Growing your own vegetables is kind of the silver bullet to solving some of the issues surrounding hunger—there’s a lot more nutritional value in that,” says Noe. It is also meant as a respite for workers during hot months, as well as a potential space for donor events. “There is not a lot of shelter out there. It will be a really big add for the volunteers to have a place to rest.” It will serve as a “flex space.” It may even, in time, host schoolchildren for class field trips.

“It is a very exciting project for me,” says Noe. “It’s one of my favorites…the scale of it, how it is going to touch and affect so many people. It brings home the idea of what architecture and space can do and hopefully will do. I see great potential in this affecting not just the food bank but the entire area—a little pavilion where the community can [gather and] radiate out.”

Westrup concurs, explaining how this is a model that can be replicated anywhere and everywhere. Comparing it to the Green Apple Day of Service, she views this year’s Legacy Project as one of service. “I think as green building professionals,” she says, “we often get tied to infrastructure and building versus this other element of sustainability, which is so important—the social well-being of our communities.”