For some, getting fresh fruits and vegetables is a simple thing, only requiring a quick stop at the local grocery store. For others, even in our own community, it is not so simple.
Large sections of metropolitan areas are often referred to as “food deserts,” or areas that lack grocery stores, farmers markets, or other healthy food providers. Solving this issue takes a creative approach, and people in the community are looking at solutions that challenge the way we think about food production.
The Center for Urban Sustainability at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) hosts the Sustainability Launchpad each year, and this year’s subject of discussion was food. Movers and shakers from all over the city gathered in the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center to discuss what can be done to provide healthy food options to people in Omaha’s impoverished areas.
Entrepreneurship, policy, production, and justice were among the topics discussed at the launchpad, according to Steve Rodie, Director of the Center for Urban Sustainability.
“No one is building a grocery store in certain parts of town, so what are we going to do about it?” Rodie said.
Community gardens do exist in Omaha, but policies make it difficult for them to turn a profit. Getting started is not easy, either. It costs a lot of money to build a line that taps into the water supply.
There are many areas in Omaha that have potential to be urban farming sites, Rodie says. The problem is that it is difficult to find out who owns the lots, and current law structure does not offer incentives if someone wants to start a community garden. “Policy changes are sometimes the most important steps in order to make things work better,” said Rodie.
Hydroponic and aquaponic growing systems are also starting to sprout up across the city.
Ian Peterson, who is working toward his secondary education teaching certificate at UNO, recently launched Peterson Greens, a hydroponic vegetable producer in an old warehouse near 7th and Pacific streets.
Peterson Greens is able to grow fresh vegetables indoors, year-round. Its produce is already being served at some of Omaha’s finest restaurants, such as The Grey Plume, The Boiler Room, and Kitchen Table.
Peterson, whose background is in plant biology, said he got the idea for the company when he was driving down 10th street just outside of the Old Market. He saw the abandoned warehouses and thought of ways they could be brought to life again. The company is a mere three months old, but it serves as an example of how to make use of property that is often overlooked. With scores of unused lots and old buildings within Omaha’s city limits, there is lots of room to grow.
As part of the UNO P-16 service learning project, King Science and Technology Magnet Middle School and Omaha Bryan High School have integrated aquaponics into their curriculum. Students grow food in aquaponics systems, which employ fish waste and recirculated water to quickly and efficiently grow food, which allows them to donate to the local food bank.
UNO will have an aquaponics system of its own soon. It is slated to be on the first floor of the Community Engagement Center and will be ready this upcoming fall.
When addressing the issue of food deserts, Rodie and Peterson agree that educating younger generations is the most effective way to promote change.
Rodie works in collaboration with Omaha Northwest High School, where students are responsible for maintaining and cultivating a garden as part of their biology course.
Eventually, Peterson plans on having a community garden of his own where he can share his knowledge. “The big thing is getting to the kids,” he said. “Getting them excited and getting them to think about it.”
It seems to be working, too. Rodie says that the students at Omaha Bryan have really become engaged in the project. “You always hear stories about young people not liking peas or other greens, but when students help build the tank, feed the fish, and pick the lettuce, they eat it and like the taste.”
Part of the challenge is helping people understand the nutritional value in eating fresh produce. “If parents have never cooked with fresh vegetables, then there is no incentive for kids to do it,” Rodie added.
Community gardens, aquaponics, hydroponics, service learning projects, and the Sustainability Launchpad are just a few examples of what is being done to end hunger in Omaha. Ultimately, it comes down to raising awareness and educating individuals on the importance of growing fresh produce.
Peterson added, “People don’t realize that, right in their backyard, they can create what they would see in a grocery store.”