By Nathalie Rosa Bucher
Some tables are turning in Lebanon as consumers change the way they procure their food, wanting to know about where it is grown, how and by whom. In the absence of official guidelines and institutional oversight bodies, consumer and producers rely on trust.
The following two articles look at the growing number of Lebanese that are buying parts or all the food they eat from alternative, personal and organic (non-certified) networks. Generally motivated by the direct contact with the people who grow their food, a healthier, richer and more seasonal diet, they also favor this approach for giving producers a fairer deal and generating less pollution, less waste as packaging is eliminated or recycled and organic waste composted.
Driven by similar ethical and nutritional concerns and wanting to strengthen the livelihoods and food security of vulnerable families in Beirut, both refugees and locals, an urban agriculture project set up in eastern Beirut has taught beneficiaries gardening and turned stark rooftops green and abundant.
Rooftops in Beirut’s eastern periphery provide nutrient-rich homegrown harvests, poverty-relief and food for the soul for vulnerable families
The operation is characterized by swift, coordinated moves. In a short time, agricultural engineer Nadim Rawda and his “green gang” set up a garden on a pavement in Naba’a, next to Beirut’s Armenian neighborhood of Burj Hammoud.
The team is part of an urban agricultural project, aiming to alleviate poverty and boost nutrition in this area, which together with nearby Doura has seen a significant increase of Syrian refugees since 2011.
“Inshallah, we’ll have makdous (stuffed eggplant),” Maha*, a young Syrian mother and beneficiary, exclaimed as she watched Rawda, his brother Rami Rawda, Amina* and Ramadan*.
Twenty minutes later, Maha had a garden made up of eight plastic crates: four upside down and four right-side up ones placed on top. Then the inside was covered with plastic sheets before Amina made small incisions into the plastic to allow the soil that is filled into the top crates to drain well.
The next step involved soughing radish, rocca (rocket leaves also called arugula) and rashad (local salad), and coriander. Then eggplant, peppers, marjoram, onions, garlic, thyme, basil, white radish, and green and red cabbage were planted, chosen according to the impending cold season.
While setting up the garden, the planters shared tips with Maha. Lastly, they added coriander seeds and watered the plants, before clearing up and moving on to another site.
Urban gardening to improve refugee lives
The urban garden component of the project Building the Food Security and Economic Resilience of Syrian Refugees and Vulnerable Members of their Host Communities in Beirut/Lebanon, ran between September 2015 and December 2016 and is coordinated and implemented by the Environment and Sustainable Development Unit (ESDU) at the American University of Beirut (AUB). The Near East Foundation (NEF) provided funding for training and start-up materials for container gardening, vertical gardening, and/or rooftop gardening and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) helped selecting beneficiaries.
ESDU staff involved in the project includes engineers Nadim Rawda and Mabelle Chedid, both co-founders of the Food Heritage Foundation (FHF) coordinating two other projects involving urban agriculture in Haret Hreik and Ain el Remmaneh (Greater Beirut) and Halba in Akkar, north Lebanon.
Amina and Ramadan are trainers from the local community who received several Training of Trainers (ToT) sessions to empower them to follow-up with the project beneficiaries once the agricultural component of the project would be terminated in December 2016.
“Setting up one production unit, consisting of a vertical or horizontal unit, a composting unit, seeds, plants, soil and including logistics, costs $100,” Chedid noted. “The material used for the kits in our project is simple and not expensive as it relies on the use of recycled and recyclable material. The results achieved so far were satisfying and families are saving money (estimated to $50 per month) on the purchase of vegetables.”
“There are more or less 80 families in total, including Syrian, Armenian and Lebanese, who are part of this project,” Rawda explained. “Most of these have rooftop gardens. The gardens provide vegetables and allow them to reduce stress, connect with the soil and work with their hands. They also know what they eat and reduce waste through composting.”
“We choose the families, assess their house and select spots conducive for the selected plants to grow before setting up a rooftop garden,” Rawda said. “Important are water, light, a small knowledge about agriculture but most of them have agricultural roots. We also need to know who owns the property.”
Getting owners to agree to gardens being set up on their properties and dealing with a highly mobile target population – many families have emigrated since the onset of the project – posed the biggest challenges.
More than just economic benefits
Urban gardens reduce household expenditures and can become income generating. For families where breadwinners may only have sporadic income, getting by at less than $200 a month, this significantly improves vulnerable families’ livelihoods.
Some rooftop gardeners have specialized in certain crops, notably hot peppers or herbs and strawberries in spring. The top-ranked garden of the project yields 60kg of fresh Jew-mallow leaves, which makes for 15kg of dry mloukhiya leaves, used to make a popular dish, mloukhiya. Rawda also mentioned a rooftop snail production in an old fridge.
Besides economic benefits and a diversified diet, Rawda cites psychological benefits from being in touch with nature and the joy of harvesting one’s own crops. “Kids should learn basic principles of gardening and self-subsistence at school!”
Beneficiaries, which are often women, are taught urban agriculture principles, as well as seasonal cycles, how to pre-treat fruit and vegetables before drying and preserving them so they last, how to collect seeds, planting crops that are eaten on a daily basis, and how to save money. “Loose tea bags are very rich in iron,” Rawda explained.
“Maha is enjoying her own onions, coriander and radish and is eagerly awaiting her first eggplant harvest,” Rawda, who has been following up regularly, said two months later. “The gardens all look good and even though it’s been cold, everybody made shelters, using nylon or plexi above the crates to protect them from the hard rain.”
*Full names have been retained for personal reasons.
Source : WE Magazine issue #15