In the back of the old Huber’s West End Market, there’s a makeshift market with bowls of kale, kohlrabi and cucumbers. The weather’s steamy. The soundtrack is James Brown. And there are no price tags. Everything is pay what you can, says Hawa Lassanah to a steady stream of curious customers. “That’s another way to show people that there’s another way to do things,” she says during a break. “We don’t have to follow the structure that leaves so many people out.”

This market is small but the ideas behind it are vast.

Discerning Eye Community Agriculture (DECA) launched at the beginning of the pandemic, but Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture still added it to a cross-state tour of urban farms. During one week in July, politicians and ag department staff visited sites not just growing food but connecting urban farming to art and science, poverty and humanity. The tour included one of the largest urban farms in country, Hilltop Urban Farm in Pittsburgh, a new group of raised beds along an alleyway in Reading, Berks County, and DECA. Each stop was a virtual garden spot.

“Urban ag has huge potential in the commonwealth, and I believe it can help mitigate food insecurity and have a positive impact on climate by reducing the distance food travels to reach our tables,” says state Sen. Judy Schwank, Democratic chair of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.

In its second year, DECA has grown beyond its roots in a borrowed farm plot in New Holland and gardens at Boys & Girls Club of Lancaster. This spring, the project made the cut for the final five for the Great Social Enterprise Pitch and won third place.

Lassanah is the founder and managing director of DECA. This is the latest of her Discerning Eye ventures. The first, Discerning Eye Foundation for the Arts and Education, aimed to build community around arts online. Lassanah briefly operated a brick-and-mortar gallery in Lancaster city under the DECA name, too. Next came Yoga for All, building community around movement, breath and mindfulness.

Now, it’s time to build community around food.

DECA’s market will be at the former Huber’s, 501 W. Lemon St., through the fall when renovations start. Lassanah shared more about what she’s doing between chatting with customers on the first market day. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you get involved with growing food?

In 2015, I was the director of the Boys and Girls Club and they had a little garden out back with sunflowers. That was when I started my yoga and leadership education through Create Karma. That really helped me begin to learn how the things we do in life affect our wellness. Food became a big part of it, seeing the kids and some of their behavioral issues.

Let’s start growing some food, get your hands in the dirt. Let’s take trips to expand awareness of spaces outside the city. I don’t fit the script of a black woman administrator that these kids may be used to. A lot of what I was there to do was show them there’s another way to be. There’s another way to do things. That’s another thing connecting these (Discerning Eye) businesses.

My tagline for the Great Social Enterprise Pitch was in the county that counts itself for having the most the best agricultural soil in the country, no person should be going hungry.

How did you take that thought of taking a group of kids outside their neighborhoods to ending hunger here?

I’m going to explain in a roundabout way. My yoga education taught me to listen to my intuitive voice. I had this compulsion to learn about aquaponics and hydroponics and how to grow food when you don’t have space to grow.

In 2019, I reached a point where my life was fine but there’s more. Where can I connect the dots between the things that I really enjoy doing, the things that I’m good at and how I can make a difference in the world.

I reconnected with my father and we still have family land in Liberia. He was like, ‘I wish I had somebody to farm.’ I can do that. Maybe this would be an opportunity for me to get into aquaponics and hydroponics but let me practice.

I was able to grow food hydroponically in my backyard (in Lancaster). I had PVC pipes, pallets, rain barrels and a bunch of plants. If I can do it, anybody can do it, and there’s so many different ways to do it.

Can you explain the difference between aquaponics and hydroponics?

They’re both soil-less gardening using organic nutrients and water in order to make plants grow. Aquaponics adds fish into the mix.

We have a big plan for DECA City Farms but we’re not releasing it until 2024-25. They’re contained energy-efficient micro-urban farm units.

There’s a company out of Canada, Soliculture, makes solar greenhouse glass so the glass itself will create the energy. We’ll put these together to build an urban farm in the size of a parking space.

What kind of yield are you talking about?

It depends on the person and their garden acuity. It could feed 50 people.

What you’re doing right now is the Backyard Farming Cooperative, DECA City Provisions and DECA City Farms. Could you explain what the Co-op is?

My colleague Elliot Martin, we had these shared passions of changing the way things are done. We began the Backyard Farming Cooperative in his farm plot in New Holland. We started a CSA with produce for people in the city we delivered by bicycle.

We’re still developing it to make sure it’s within the appropriate health codes and regulations. We’re working with our lawyer that we won (from the pitch) to have a contractual agreement for folks to grow food in their own spaces and be able to contribute and get paid for it if they’d like. People who are involved have access to bulk buying, seed sharing and building new networks to connect.

DECA City Provisions is our value-added food brand. We have our infused honeys and black garlic paste right now. We’ll also have a consumer brand that takes all these vegetables that don’t sell into value-added food products, starting with freeze-dried food and vegetable powders.

One of the main reasons why we’re doing this is so people who don’t have access can get nutrient-dense food. You can add beet powder to your spaghetti sauce and that injects tons of delicious nutrients.

So instead of putting the leftover vegetables (from a partner, Side Track Farms) in the trash, we’re turning these used vegetables into products that can last 20 to 25 years.

And DECA City Farms is your farm?

Yes. In Lancaster County Park. Our main plot is raised beds so we could integrate water-saving techniques. All of our high raised beds are sub-irrigated planters to capture rainwater to feed our plants.

We have another three plots where we’re growing melons and squash.

No hydroponics?

We didn’t get to it this season, but that next season is 100%. And we’ll be showing how to do that with irrigation and five-gallon buckets. We’re planning a series of workshops in the fall to keep the momentum going for a community garden in the 300 block of Beaver Street.

Where will the produce go from there?

Another aspect of DECA is to have a community garden farm and a market in each quadrant of the city.

You’re talking about how you are setting a foundation for all these big ideas. What are some concrete things that you’re hoping to see happen before the end of the year?

That’s the hardest question. I want everything done by the end of this year.

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