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Building Edible Urban Neighborhoods, One 'Nourishmat' at a Time

When I was growing up in LeDroit Park in Washington, D.C., the Gage School across the street was boarded up and the only fruit or vegetable from the corner store was a hot pickled pepper. The Safeway had turned into a postal center and neighborhoods hadn’t been coined “food deserts” yet.

Fast forward a few years later to 2011, when I found myself sleeping in Dale Johnson's sustainable farm management class at the University of Maryland. I awoke to someone screaming “Victory.” And he wasn't talking about a battle of bullets, but how victory gardens could solve epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other nutrition-related illnesses.

Until 2011, I thought about my future working for the latest and greatest software company. But a sharp realization occurred to me—having a six-figure salary meant nothing if I couldn’t buy healthy food. Eavesdropping on classmate John Gorby’s conversation about plants and fuel in our Calculus II class is what got two driven students from Agricultural Economic and Environmental Science backgrounds connected to solve a real-world problem about food production.

The Nourishmat was conceived right around the time when the world's population was nearing seven billion. I had just read Richard Heinberg's Fifty Million Farmers, which painted a picture of worldwide famine due to lack of food energy, scarcity of fresh water, a shortage of farmers, and irreversible global climate change. The scariest statistic was the proportion of principal farm operators younger than thirty-five that had dropped from 15.9 percent in 1982 to 5.8 percent in 2002. More mouths, less people working to feed them. In the 1960s, one farmer supplied food for 25.8 persons in the U.S. Today, one farmer supplies food for 144 people in the U.S. and abroad. But I had read enough. John and I wanted to help reduce dependencies on food markets while also focusing on creating exactly what our name stands for—nourishment.

Using well-known farming methods, we designed the Nourishmat with the intent that years of farming knowledge could be taught to young school-age students, who may be unaware of the origin of their food or how it is grown. Our plan to cultivate young food growers is centered on the Nourish Movement, which will turn consumers into producers in inner-cities or suburbs, where symptoms of food deserts often crop up.

The Nourishmat is a market-based approach to growing healthy food with limited resources. People need not only an affordable solution, but also education and resources. Our plan is to focus our efforts on schools and push municipalities to spend time and resources on creating edible schoolyards. Empty spaces in urban locales are community opportunity zones to us. We aim to tag areas in need of nourishment and present a plan of action to cities whereby we can create edible neighborhoods using the Nourishmat.

People will be empowered to grow 19 plant types, a mixture of both food and flowers, with a planting guide that tells you where and when to grow, and a 4' x 6' Nourishmat that lasts three to five years, including an optional built-in irrigation system. We’re also throwing in seedballs, which are mixtures of clay, earthworm castings, chili-powder and non-GMO seeds.

We have come a long way and have had many bumps and scrapes during the growing process. Our team has worked hard to beat out better-funded companies and apps, and we were poised to win the 2013 Cupid's Cup presented by fellow UMD Alumnus and Under Armour Kevin Plank, which confirmed that two guys bootstrapping out of basements and working against the rays of the sun could create a healthier U.S., one garden at a time. But we can't keep doing this on our own. We need more gardens in the world and we’re doing this with our own cash, so we’d like you to be involved. Check out our Kickstarter page if you’d like to be part of the Nourish Movement.

This project is part of GOOD's Saturday series Push for Good—our guide to crowdsourcing creative progress.

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Photo courtesy of Earth Starter

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