Social Impact

Undergrad sustainability fellow looks to bring urban agriculture to affordable neighborhoods

Urban studies and planning major Baron Zhu is working to see more urban gardens and green spaces in areas with affordable housing around L.A.

September 27, 2021 Grayson Schmidt

Baron Zhu has seen firsthand the impact that homegrown food can make on not only one’s health but also the environment.

But Zhu didn’t grow up on a farm, nor is he from a rural area. The Oakland native saw the benefits of gardening in places that don’t exactly spring to mind when talking about growing produce: Beijing and New York.

That inspired a proposal to build more urban gardens and green spaces in areas with affordable housing around L.A. And that ultimately led the junior to the Undergraduate Sustainability Grand Challenge Fellowship from the USC Center for Sustainability Solutions.

“Food security issues, in general, aren’t as talked about within sustainability compared to energy or fossil fuels and things like that,” Zhu said.

“People think that since we live in the U.S., we don’t really have a food issue, but it all depends on where you live — access and affordability.”

Zhu, an urban studies and planning major in the USC Price School of Public Policy, earned one of four fellowships given out by the Center for Sustainability Solutions. Its fellowship program, which is open to undergraduate students in all majors, supports multidisciplinary research projects focused on sustainability. Fellowships are awarded for a one-year duration, renewable for up to three years.

Journey to a USC sustainability fellowship begins

Zhu’s journey into this started as a child when he’d visit family in Beijing. The junior said his family members would use their limited balcony space in the city of 21.5 million to grow produce like garlic, leeks and tomatoes. Returning home to the Bay Area, Zhu’s mother also started to grow her own garden, which Zhu said really picked up during the pandemic. Fast forward to earlier this summer: Zhu was visiting friends at New York University and saw how extensive urban gardens can be here in the U.S.

“It was a really cool atmosphere, seeing all these different gardens,” Zhu said. “A lot of those gardens were grown and tended to by volunteers, and they’d grow different crops, and I was just thinking of how we can apply that sort of a model into Los Angeles.”

The passion for such projects in L.A. is already here, evident by groups like Urban Farms L.A. and L.A. Green Grounds. And reaching out to established groups is the next phase of Zhu’s plan.

The idea of growing food on your block is not so far-fetched.

Baron Zhu

“We have a good climate for growing crops. And a big issue in Los Angeles is food deserts, where a lot of people don’t live near grocery stores that provide fresh produce,” Zhu said. “Although obviously not a complete solution, urban agriculture can provide a sort of alternative for people to grow their own food and establish community ties within their neighborhoods. …

“The idea of growing food on your block is not so far-fetched.”

Unlike the other proposals that received fellowships, Zhu is the only solo act, though he’ll be working with advisers from the USC Price School and the USC School of Architecture, where he is an architecture minor.

Zhu plans on working with organizations around L.A. and using his fellowship funds to help fund construction efforts of either new or in progress gardens. He plans to monitor daily activity of three garden types: rooftop, balcony and ground-floor, as well as interview locals about how gardens impact the community.

Though in the early stages of his project and has not specified which neighborhoods he’ll be looking at, Zhu said he’s looking forward to working with various groups around L.A. He’s glad that the university shares his goal of blurring the lines between urban and rural areas.

“I think [the university] is trying to take steps to get more students invested in the research of sustainability,” Zhu said. “Hopefully these steps will lead to even more comprehensive programs in the future, but I’m very optimistic.”