Chander Payne's Urban Beet initiative has thus far delivered 3,600-plus pounds of fresh vegetables to residents of local food deserts. Credit: Chander Payne / Courtesy

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Chander Payne digs dirt. 

The budding farmer’s fondness for linking humans to the promise of the oft-disregarded ground beneath their feet spurred him to launch a social — and earthy — enterprise as a high schooler in metropolitan Washington, D.C.

Chander Payne

His hands-on effort to connect farming with homeless shelters and schools in underserved communities has thus far delivered 3,600-plus pounds of fresh vegetables to residents of local food deserts.

Payne, now in college, named his city-centric endeavor Urban Beet. The ambitious effort to connect students with gardening, families with real food and everyone with the soil was awarded a Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes in 2020, the year he graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase, a top-ranked high school in Montgomery County, Maryland. The Colorado-based nonprofit affiliated with the prize annually recognizes 25 young, inspiring and public-spirited leaders across the United States and Canada who have made a significant difference to people, their communities and the environment. 

Payne was introduced to the concept of regenerative agriculture at a summer job where he learned how pesticides and tilling had severely disrupted the natural carbon-capturing ability of plants and soil microorganisms. Reversing those modern trends can mitigate climate change in at least a couple of ways. Healthy replenished soil can store carbon underground, offsetting some of the emissions from fossil fuel power plants and vehicles. Urban gardens can also reduce what’s known as the heat island effect when they replace asphalt and other heat-absorbing hard surfaces.  

These lessons led him to see his surroundings as a garden that needs tending. Beyond food, he wants his farms to offer joy, empowerment and healing to children.  

“My work has led me to see the world as a regenerative farmer, to be perceptive and empathetic,” said Payne, now a freshman at Williams College in Massachusetts, leaning toward a major in environmental studies. “I envision a world where I walk into underserved neighborhoods and see colorful beets and tomatoes growing — a world where every kid has a close relationship with living soil and fresh food.”

Chemistry teacher Christopher Knocke was part of the team that nominated Payne for a Barron Prize. Author T.A. Barron established the prize two decades ago to honor his mother, Gloria, who labored for years to create a nature museum at the Colorado School for the Blind.

Payne’s idea for Urban Beet sprouted as a single raised bed filled with soil, compost and seeds in his high school’s courtyard. It’s still thriving and has expanded to 200 square feet, with an additional solar-powered vertical farm.

Now, the 18-year-old is executive director of what’s evolved into an LLC fueled by donations. His team of young go-getters has constructed farms at three high schools in suburban Maryland and five at homeless shelters and related facilities in the nation’s capital and Delaware. Urban Beet plans to create 10 additional farms in Virginia and elsewhere around the region later this year.

“I am eager to continue investigating the relationship between the well-being of soil microbiomes, families and farming communities,” he said.

In an interview with the Energy News Network, Payne explained how and why food insecurity, urban heat islands and soil degradation in his own backyard inspired his passion for global soil health and the climate fight. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: What prompted your interest in growing vegetables?

A: It all started when I noticed food inequality at my high school when I was a sophomore. My classmates who ate in the cafeteria, typically those without extra money to eat off campus, had french fries as their only vegetable. That motivated me to ask to see the school kitchen. When I looked into the vegetable refrigerator, it was empty. I took a photo to remember.

Credit: Chander Payne / Courtesy

Q: The photo evidently had an impact on you. What did you do next?

A: I wanted to address the disparity in access to nutritious food, so I created a partnership between a local rooftop garden and my school’s food pantry in 10th grade. Previously, the pantry provided families with canned food. Soon, needy families had access to 20 pounds of fresh produce weekly. Besides lettuce and tomatoes, the harvests include beets, kale, corn, chard, okra and spinach.

Q: Then, you decided to get your hands dirty. How did that work out?

A: I spent the summer of 2017 building vegetable gardens around the District of Columbia for Love & Carrots, a local company. That’s where I learned the practice of regenerative agriculture, farming techniques that build healthy soil by sequestering carbon in the ground.

Q: And that, literally, laid the groundwork for what is now Urban Beet?

A: Yes. As the school year began, my aspiration was to make urban farming accessible. I wanted to help marginalized young people grow food regeneratively while sharing the soothing mental escape that gardening provides.

Q: How did you find like-minded classmates to work in that courtyard garden at your high school?

A: It was challenging because soil is not the most thrilling topic to all 16-year-olds. But I eventually assembled a dedicated team of nine. We called ourselves the Avengers of Urban Farming. 

One of our first partnerships was with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, a nonprofit. I invited them to receive produce by joining us on summer field trips to our regenerative farm. When we host community workdays at our farms, children enjoy their harvest as farm-fresh meals made by True Food Kitchen.

Q: You refer to soil as the silent hero beneath our feet. Why?

A: I have found the magic of soil. It connects everything, capturing carbon from the air and nourishing families. My love for soil is why my initial intention to fight food deserts through produce deliveries has transformed into a project connecting people with their environment and each other. 

Q: You mentioned that your mentor from Paraguay at Love & Carrots, Manuel Rojas, showed you how to read plants as closely as scholars read texts. What does that mean?

A: I learned to relate the tiniest detail to the whole. For instance, a single wilted leaf on a sunflower can reveal a garden-wide need for water. Manuel’s lessons opened my heart and eyes as he inspired me to act with the compassionate vigilance of a regenerative farmer in other areas of my life.

Urban Beet’s Free Little Farms offered relief to struggling families during the coronavirus pandemic by offering portable container gardens. Credit: Chander Payne / Courtesy

Q: What are Free Little Farms, another offshoot of Urban Beet? 

A: These windowsill planters, complete with soil, seeds and a note of support, are created for families and people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. We partnered with homeless shelters and food pantries to distribute these portable container gardens and have donated 205 so far throughout the region.

Q: Does gardening or farming run in your family?

A: My “Namma,” or grandma, was my family’s original urban farmer. She grew up on a farm in Southern India where she grew food in harmony with the Earth. When she immigrated to America, she started growing a thriving garden.

Q: Lastly, you refer to yourself as a natural introvert. Did that make it hard for you to act on this project?

A: Nourishing young people with education and complete meals has taught me the beauty of courageous openness when communicating with others.

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" will be published by Bancroft Press in September 2020.