Proper nutrition, in part gained by maximizing nutrient values and minimizing harmful substances in our food, is one of the most elementary ways we can support the long-term well-being of all members of society. While numerous groups deal with the medical and social aspects of nutrition, Greenleaf recognizes that the problem also needs to be addressed at the very foundation of our food production, the soil in which our food is grown. Soil quality affects the volume and variety of foods that we can produce and these, along with certain environmental concerns, are the primary foci of most soil management programs. However, as communities begin looking for ways to move food production closer to home, the need to consider human health effects from urban soils becomes more important.
Community gardening and urban agriculture are practices that have dramatically expanded in recent years. Their benefits are many; community gardening programs:
- Provide access to affordable fresh foods in “food deserts,” or urban areas in which food options are limited to convenience stores and fast food restaurants
- Connect residents to their food sources, providing opportunities to engage in sustainable practices and strengthen community ties
- Support increased amounts of physical activity and better diets that have long-term positive health and economic advantages
- Supplement their social benefits with environmental benefits, such as better water and heat management in urban centers
However, there are significant limitations. Urban soils are often degraded from lack of care and contaminated with a variety of toxins from industrial processes, with heavy metal toxins often of highest concern. Dealing with these issues is expensive and time-consuming, usually requiring contaminated soils to be capped or scraped away and replaced. Often, large areas are simply considered unusable, exacerbating the food desert problem and leaving few opportunities for substantial gardening projects to get started.
The organizations that work to establish urban agriculture are anxious for solutions to these issues, and Greenleaf’s research into scientifically sound, effective tools for soil management can contribute to healthy urban gardening.
Greenleaf Communities is initiating new research projects aimed at building a set of tools for stabilizing and remediating urban soils to the point at which they can be put to productive use. Designed and led by academic researchers from the Ohio State University, Indiana University, Purdue University and others, our research is already demonstrating the many benefits of connecting smart soil management science to social and environmental concerns. Working “from the ground up,” Greenleaf finds the best ways to generate true, lasting solutions to these issues by addressing the causes at their most basic levels rather than treating their symptoms. We convene soil and human health experts to address environmental sources of concern, design and conduct research that provides sound scientific tools to improve soil and plant quality in urban agriculture, and leverage our research through outreach and partnerships.
We aim to make new areas available for cultivation in urban areas, improve the quality and quantity of the foods being grown, and by extension improve the quality of life for significant numbers of people in underserved communities and beyond.
From the Ground Up projects:
Eagle Creek Watershed, Indiana: Greenleaf is currently sponsoring a research project on agricultural lands in the Eagle Creek watershed in Brownsburg, IN. Eagle Creek Reservoir is a major source of drinking water, as well as a popular recreational space in the Indianapolis area. Fertilizer runoff, primarily phosphorous and nitrogen, from farm fields threatens the integrity of the watershed. Our research leaders at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI) are treating fields with gypsum applications to reduce harmful runoff, develop best management practices, improve farmer’s crop yields, and maintain the health of the watershed and the people who depend on it. Learn more
Remediating Urban Soils for Food Production: Land use and industrial activity in urban centers, particularly before strong regulations were in place regarding pollution and industrial waste, have left the soils in many areas contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and mercury. Many of these areas are also “food deserts,” underserved communities with few options for fresh and healthy foods. Reclaiming these contaminated lands for urban agriculture is a solution with great promise, but can be tricky and expensive. Greenleaf Communities is committed to researching effective, cost-efficient tools that support increasing access to nutritious, fresh foods while minimizing exposure to contaminants. Learn more