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2017-03-01 / News

VSU launches urban farming program

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER


Leonard Githinji, extension specialist for sustainable and urban agriculture at VSU, examines a bed of bok choy, a type of Chinese cabbage, at Randolph Farm’s urban agriculture demonstration site. 
ASH DANIEL Leonard Githinji, extension specialist for sustainable and urban agriculture at VSU, examines a bed of bok choy, a type of Chinese cabbage, at Randolph Farm’s urban agriculture demonstration site. ASH DANIEL The trip from farm to table could be a short one for participants in a new program at Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture.

This month, VSU will launch its first-ever Urban Agriculture Certification program for aspiring urban farmers, educators and entrepreneurs. The 10-week course will cover everything from growing crops on abandoned property and rooftop gardens to starting an agricultural business. Participants will learn how to care for fruits and vegetables, as well as raise small livestock such as chickens and rabbits.

“The main idea is to produce food for domestic [home] production, but with the possibility of making this a business,” says Leonard Githinji, VSU professor and specialist for sustainable urban agriculture. “We can teach people how to maximize their lot by growing a food crop.”

The course will also focus on plant diseases and pests, soil sustainability and both hydroponic and aquaponic greenhouse production. At the end of the 10 weeks’ training, to earn their certification, students will serve 80 hours in an urban farming environment and give a seminar demonstrating what they have learned. Theresa Nartea, assistant professor and extension specialist for marketing and agribusiness for VSU, is one of the many VSU and Virginia Tech instructors who will teach in the program. Nartea stresses that the certification will help young professionals hoping to start their own businesses.

“That would look very good on their resumes,” Nartea says. “It’s exciting, and could also prepare some professionals if they want to start their own urban farm or train others.”

Another aim of the course is to help combat food deserts – areas where people have limited access to grocery stores. The United States Department of Agriculture has a variety of ways to measure food access that are compiled on its Food Access Research Atlas. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey from 2010-2014, the map projects areas with both low income and poor accessibility to food.

The map shows central and eastern portions of Chesterfield as having poor food accessibility, meaning within those census tracts, at least 500 people or a third of its population live more than a mile from a supermarket for areas that the USDA considers urban. The measure for rural areas is 10 miles or more. A few pockets of Chesterfield have low food accessibility even for those who have access to vehicles.

“It’s a big deal for so many reasons,” says Elizabeth Theriault, chronic disease and food systems specialist for the Richmond City Health District and lead facilitator for the Richmond Food Access and Equity Task Force Virginia. “We have communities that don’t have access to any real fresh, healthy food options. … It’s not just a luxury; that’s a determinant of people’s health and their lifespan.”

She adds that seven out of 10 deaths in the United States are caused by chronic diseases, which are usually preventable by a healthier diet and physical activity. In explaining why food deserts are an issue, Theriault gives an example:

“Imagine trying to carry a week’s worth of groceries, and if you had any children, how difficult that would be if you had to rely solely on walking for more than a mile,” Theriault says. ¦

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