By Michael Shank

It’s hard to believe that so many in America — over 50 million people — live in food insecurity.  This is the unfortunate reality all too common in Somalia or Pakistan, but America? What’s worse is that this food insecurity is most apparent in our nation’s capital.

Yet, nearly 13 percent of all households in the District were food insecure between 2009 and 2011. Over 4 percent were considered to have “very low food security,” which means, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, they are experiencing intense hunger and cutting back or skipping meals on a more frequent basis. Worse, 37.4 percent of households with children in the District of Columbia said they were unable to afford enough food. This is the worst rate in the nation.

Conveniently for DC’s political elite, and for much of DC’s touristy locales, these numbers are not noticeable in Northwest.  Perhaps that’s why our city’s food insecurity problem is never addressed. It is, by and large, plaguing the polar opposite – Southeast – in Wards 7 and 8. They have the District’s highest poverty rates, the largest “food deserts,” and, as a result of the lack of proper nutrition, the city’s highest obesity rates – all of which unnecessarily inflates government healthcare and social service costs.

A “food desert” is a place with little or no access to foods needed to maintain a healthy diet but often served by plenty of fast food.  This is very characteristic of Ward 8’s Anacostia, which recently lost its only organic health foods store.  But forget organics for a second, there aren’t even sufficient full-service grocery stories.  Examining the District’s 43 full-service grocery stores, only two are located in Ward 4, four in Ward 7, and three in Ward 8. In contrast, Ward 3 – the highest-income Ward – has eleven full-service stores.

We are simply not serving our citizens sufficiently.  Last week, at an event organized by DC’s Department of General Services and hosted by Mayor Vince Gray and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, a company called BrightFarms announced its plan to build a 100,000 square-foot, state-of-the art greenhouse farm on a vacant, 10-acre lot in Ward 8.

The farm is designed to grow up to one million pounds of local produce per year.  Put another way, the Southeast greenhouse will grow enough crops to meet the fresh-vegetable-consumption needs of up to 5,000 (hopefully southeast) residents, which is critical since few of the city’s 30 farmers’ markets are located east of the Anacostia River.

This is certainly welcome news, even if the greenhouse won’t open until 2014.  According to this paper, which covered the event, “the facility’s 1 million pounds of produce will be sold in city and suburban stores and possibly to chefs and local residents as well.”  BrightFarms hasn’t found a grocery partner yet (Anacostia, anyone?), but hopes to by the end of May.

And while Ward 8 is desperately in need of jobs, as the average unemployment rate in Ward 8 in 2012 was over 22 percent (one of the highest in the country), this greenhouse isn’t really about jobs, despite how the event was spun.  Yes, the 25 full-time jobs and 100 short-term construction jobs that BrightFarms is bringing is beneficial. There is no question there.

The real gift to the community, however, is the one million pounds of GMO-free produce that the greenhouse will generate – provided it actually gets into the homes of Ward 7 and Ward 8 residents living in chronic food insecurity. This is the real test.

Don’t get me wrong; we need more companies like BrightFarms. Last fall, according to this paper, they approached 20 cities with plans to build urban greenhouses and the Department of General Services responded enthusiastically.  The Mayor was right to move quickly on this as it fits perfectly within his Sustainable DC agenda.

Since the farm is local and water and energy efficient, produce will be fresher, require less gas mileage for transport, use less waste and no pesticides and herbicides, and will ultimately be greener – all of which is good for the environment.

But where the rubber hits the road is when the tomatoes, lettuce and herbs are ready for harvest.  Will the food-insecure households of Ward 7 and Ward 8 be able to access and afford these healthy and nutritious foods?  They better; otherwise this project fails to fix the most pressing chronic problem facing this city: hunger.

While I agree with Stan Jackson, president and chief executive of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp, the local partner on this project, when he says this greenhouse farm starts “building job opportunities in the area of agriculture that could lead to living-wage experiences for residents that have been victims of long-term and chronic unemployment,” but we need much more than that in Ward 7 and Ward 8.

Without a doubt, we need bright farms in DC, but we’ll need a lot more than one greenhouse if we want to kick food insecurity and food deserts to the curb. That’s what a real “Sustainable DC” plan would look like.  It is time for the Mayor to step up and start one.