Ward 5 resident Ronnie Webb applied for about 100 entry-level jobs through the United States Department of Agriculture when he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Agricultural Business in 2011. But he didn’t get one call for an interview.
So he decided to build an environmental education nonprofit in wards 7 and 8 called The Green Scheme. Two years later, the USDA awarded The Green Scheme with a $114,000 grant.
“It takes some organizations 10 years to receive a grant that large. It was mind-blowing. But it let us know that our business model was solid, and I had made the right decision by starting my own organization,” says Webb.
The Green Scheme launched programming in wards 7 and 8 that focused on three pillars — environmental education, health, and entrepreneurship — with a curriculum developed with help from American University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (American University holds the license for DCist’s parent company, WAMU.) The nonprofit organizes programs for youth and families to help grow community gardens in the wards, has started a water bottle brand available for sale in a D.C. grocer, and now it has its eyes on impacting city policy.
Webb says part of why he launched the nonprofit east of the river is because he wants residents, especially youth, to know an urban farmer who’s relatable to them.
“There weren’t many Black students in my college classes or even now at environmental conferences and panels. I want the kids to know an environmentalist who looks and talks like them,” says Webb. The organization also hopes to turn around statistics like high rates of diabetes east of the river. In wards 7 and 8, the type 2 diabetes statistics are 13 and 20%, respectively, higher than other wards and more than double the national average, according to NBC News.
As a teenager, Webb participated in summer programs at the U.S. Botanical Gardens and U.S. National Arboretum, where he learned about soil and plant maintenance. But he didn’t decide on agriculture as his career path until attending college, when Webb randomly added an agricultural economics class to his course load — he needed additional credits and it was one of the few courses with open seats. He became fascinated by food production and economics, and from there decided on a profession in the field of agricultural business.
Webb wants to use his experience to inform residents in wards 7 and 8 about agriculture and the environment. One of The Green Scheme’s programs, Code Green, engages 60 youth annually to build and harvest community gardens in their neighborhoods, alongside partnerships with east of the river housing complexes, schools and churches. The nonprofit has built 11 gardens east of the river, which try to help fill in the gap left by the lack of grocery stores in wards 7 and 8 compared to the rest of the city.
Code Green also leads after-school and summer programs.
This past summer, Code Green led a summer program at Lincoln Heights public housing complex in Ward 7. The program welcomes youth and parents to build a community garden, learn healthy meal alternatives and participate in exercise classes like African dance and yoga classes held at the garden.
Tanya Forte whose family lives in Lincoln Heights, says that her three children, ages 5, 6 and 7, have participated in the program the past three summers.
It’s different this year because of COVID-19: The curriculum is split between in-person and virtual learning activities. But the program is being innovative about engaging students. This year, the Green Scheme gifted blenders, fruits, yogurt and more to families, so that they could make healthy smoothies in the mornings to begin the program. Forte says the children learned how to safely prepare the smoothies by washing their hands and the fruit, while she helps with dicing the fruits.
The program has made other adjustments as well. While the youth still tend to the community garden, they meet in smaller groups to maintain social distancing. To make sure students have something tangible even when they can’t go to the garden space, The Green Scheme delivered seedlings to youth at Lincoln Heights so that youth could grow fruits and veggies at home. The students follow along virtually with program instructors to re-pot and take care of the plants. Forte says her family and her neighbors are growing corn and cucumbers from the seedlings and use the harvest in their meals. Every now and then, she goes to the community garden to pick oranges, apples, mushrooms and tomatoes as well, she adds.
Webb says the programs are making an impact — students are making healthier choices in what they consume. While at the Lincoln Heights garden, Webb says students were watching their parents pick vegetables from the garden that would be used to cook dinner. When an ice cream truck drove past, the kids had the urge to run to the truck but instead stayed put because they were interested in what their parents were selecting.
“In the hood, when kids see the ice cream truck, they run to catch it. I wanted to flag down the truck, but I had to tell myself, ‘No,’ ” says Webb. “From that day, we started the no fast-food policy.”
The after-school programs, which feature different programming, paused in mid-March due to the coronavirus.
Typically, during the after-school program, the youth create a food map of their neighborhoods, mapping the grocery and corner stores locations in the area. Afterward, the students visit the stores and use polaroid cameras to capture images of healthy options inside. The youth realized that the stores in their community didn’t have “fancy” name brand or infused water. Webb encouraged them to think about how to resolve that issue, and the youth decided to create their own water bottle product.
The Green Scheme brought in a certified food handler and found a commercial kitchen, so that students could filter and infuse their water with blueberries, mint and other options. Webb called the product Corner Water, and the kids created custom labels for branding. The students sell out when they bring their products to places like parent-teacher meetings, says Webb, and get to keep the profit, usually about $20 for each student. (The water sells for $2 per bottle.)
“The kids learn entrepreneurship and think about how to resolve issues in their community,” says Webb. “If that can be done with a cup of water, then, man, we can improve so much more.”
So Webb decided to expand the custom-made bottled water program, by working with a water plant to create alkaline, mint-infused bottled water. On Martin Luther King Day 2020, Corner Water launched in-store at Good Food Markets in Ward 5. Webb says D.C. residents showed up to support and the product sold out and continues to sell out to this day. Corner Water is also sold at community events throughout wards 7 and 8. Webb hopes to sell the product in more grocers including the Good Food Markets slated to come to Ward 8 this fall. Profits from Corner Water sales go back to Code Green.
Webb is pushing for healthy beverages across the city. The Green Scheme, in partnership with other organizations, is leading a campaign called #DontMuteMyHealth to promote a tax on sugary drinks like sodas. The organizations made a music video titled, “Watch This Video and You’ll Never Drink Soda Again.”
Webb is also looking into school lunches. He believes access to healthy eating options impacts students’ mental health, academics and how productive students are outside of school. So, The Green Scheme and District of Columbia Public Schools are working together to launch a social-media lunch campaign to focus on students’ recommendations about school lunches, which will also feature environmental poets and rappers, says Lea Howe, who helped co-create DCPS School Food Advisory Board.
The Green Scheme is focused on building a foundation for further growth. “True community resiliency is taking the raw materials from our community and using them to add to the health and wellness of the community,” says Webb.