Victory Gardens DC, a new urban farm in Washington, D.C., grew out of one young couple’s desire to serve city residents in a practical way. Alex Shek, an entrepreneur, and his wife Julia, a nurse, decided that the best way to help the people in their Southeast neighborhood is to provide healthy food to those who can’t afford it. With Alex’s business know how, Julia’s knowledge of healthy food and cooking, and the aid of some talented friends, they started an urban farm in their own neighborhood. Neighbors, local businesses, churches and contributors on indigogo.com have provided labor and money, and the couple’s dream is now a reality.
Food Tank: What inspired you to start Victory Gardens DC?
AS: My wife and I moved to the city from Northern Virginia with the idea of ministry and outreach in our heart, and we wanted to fill a need, a practical need, and how practical is food? The ability to find organic food or good fresh fruits and vegetables at a low cost in the city is really challenging, and I hope we can make an impact through providing food for those that can’t afford it.
D.C. is a city that has a lot of alleys. In the 80’s and 90’s these used to be alley dwellings where low income families lived. They have since been shut down and are now unused vacant spaces. We think it’s a wonderful opportunity to turn these vacant lots into beautiful common spaces for the community where people can work together.
FT: It sounds like you already had people around you who could help you develop the farm. Can you tell me about them?
AS: Yes, my wife Julia, and Kathryn, who handles writing and public relations, lives in household with us and is very interested in outreach, supporting neighbors and being a part of the community as well as making an impact. My friend Matt, who works in real estate development, has always had a heart for organic foods and providing support for families in need. My brother in law Carlos is helping us with landscape design.
A good friend of mine I’ve known since I was 12 years old, Peter, is a farm manager in Virginia. He’s been the catalyst for getting this thing off the ground. He brings a wealth of knowledge to the table, and without him and his approval of the project and the mission I think it would be a lot more challenging for us to get it off the ground, but with him it’s been pretty smooth. We’ve had a clear direction on how to run and operate things, and he’s put a lot of good systems in order for us. It’s all come together and with a core group of people that really understand, really love the mission and that are flexible, able-bodied and ready to dig in.
FT: What made you call your farm Victory Garden DC?
AS: My wife came up with the name. We were talking about urban agriculture, farming or gardening, and the whole concept of providing not only for our family but for others. Victory gardens, the World War II effort [to garden in yards, empty lots, and rooftops to provide food for communities and free up trucks to serve the war effort], was an influence on my wife. She thought that it had a really positive meaning and that our farm can become something that can be victorious, that can support people, provide for them.
FT: What are your goals for Victory Gardens DC?
AS: Short term goals are to provide as much fresh organic food, fruits, vegetables and herbs for low income families in the city as we can. We want to start a CSA program that is completely free to families that are low income.
Our long-term goals? We’d like to have these farms all around the city, two, three, four, more. If the idea catches, and the right people are behind us to support the project and the mission, the sky’s the limit. I can see us creating these in neighborhoods across the city, and we’d like to be a model for that.
We’d love to hire more low-income residents of the city–I’m an entrepreneur by nature, I own a couple different companies, and I’d like to put a work program together to teach people not only about entrepreneurship but practical farming hand skills.
We would also like to be a center of activity for communities. The farm has already brought our neighborhood together in ways that I really didn’t think it would. We’ve had neighbors donate not only financially but also their time, labor and equipment. It’s become this sharing space where we can support one another and work together. D.C. is very high pace, fast pace, go go go, go getter, we all work 50, 60 hours a week, and I think this has been one of those things that really pulls you away from your job, and you take a step back, and your job takes a back seat for a day, or for a few hours.
We’ve had families come together, five-year-old girls help us germinate and transplant seeds. We’ve had their brothers and sisters come out and water the gardens. We’ve had mothers and grandmothers come out and spend time together and eat meals together. We’re out doing a bunch of work, and we throw some food on the grill, and now we’re eating together, so it’s become a great space for relationships.
Building relationships is one of our big goals–building relationships between low- income and high-income residents of the city, building relationships between young and old, with people that may have never had those relationships unless there was a project like this.
FT: How have you been working with other organizations in the community?
AS: My wife and I are active members of our church and different community outreaches and support systems. We have some relationships with organizations that work directly with mothers and low-income families in the city, like A Simple House. We just spoke with a juice bar in D.C. that wants to donate their compost, and they’ve already donated some money. It’s been incredible to see the support come out of nowhere.
We’ve been doing a lot of outreach to organizations that we think we may be able to collaborate with down the road. We’ve been sending out press releases to spread the word and see what comes of it.
FT: What types of relationships do you hope to develop with other organizations in different cities?
AS: I hope we can create a model that will allow us to replicate that in different cities. Our business model is something that we’re open to sharing with people. We’re an open book; however we can collaborate and work with others to provide fresh food and build relationships and sustainable urban agriculture then we’re all for that.
FT: How are you developing your youth, ministry and cooking programs?
AS: There’s an ecumenical Christian community in Northern Virginia called People of Praise. They came and helped prep the space and build beds. We all ate lunch together, then we put the soil in the beds. We’ve had other churches say they want to bring a team of people out to help build and plant and do whatever needs to be done. We could see summer camps, or summer youth groups, or summer mission trips to help us build one of the next ones, or help us put together different projects, maybe a compost box, help us during harvesting time.
We’ll teach them about compost, seed germination, watering, weeding, harvesting, how to clip plants so they continue to harvest and grow. There’ll be many different opportunities for education.
We hired a part-time, low income resident of the city that stays at a homeless shelter not too far away, and he’s going to work 10-15 hours a week, and we’re going to share the food with him and his family.
Part of our model is sustainability, so we’d like to move in the direction of receiving donations and employing more low-income people. We’d also like to partner with a restaurant, or a chef that understands our mission. We can produce the types of crops that he needs in certain seasons, and that can provide a revenue source.
In terms of the cooking program, we’ll be providing recipe cards for how to prepare the fruits, vegetables and herbs that we give to people. I hope to have workdays on which people stay over and cook and eat together.
We’re moving fast, a lot is changing, but I think our model and our structure is pretty sound and we’ll see where it goes from here.