Baltimore communities benefiting from local food co-ops and gardens

Whitelock Community Farm co-op

Thor Nelson, president of the Whitelock Community Farm, bags up fresh arugula from this season's crops for customers Craig Bowers and Peter Ferguson. The farm also offers free produce to those who spend time working on the crops.

Sarah Jean Alexander
October 28, 2011

Food co-ops in Baltimore City are offering food discounts and free produce in exchange for hands-on farming and financial support.

Cheryl Wade, general manager of the Baltimore Food Co-op in Remington, is eager to get her community more involved with the store. The co-op opened in May in the same building as Wade’s former grocery store, Mill Valley General, after her customer base was increasingly requesting a larger, healthier food store option.

“This is a true co-op,” Wade said. “There is a give and take between co-op workers, members and shoppers, and ultimately, everyone wins. We’ve seen how supportive the community has been in their positive feedback so far.”

Wade said the primary reason co-ops first started was that like-minded people were joining together to produce and purchase goods or services that they wanted in common, quite often at a reduced price.

Wade’s co-op offers a one-time fee of $100, which in turn allows shoppers to become co-op members. Those who join will receive discounts and weekly specials on food, as well as the opportunity to attend board meetings and vote on the board of directors and co-op policies.

“Our members indicated that they want to see more healthy, local foods, which is something I’ve always been in agreement with,” Wade said, “so we’re putting the products they want on the shelves.”

Wade selects most of her products from farms and stores throughout Maryland and Pennsylvania. The majority of items are organic, and the ones that aren’t are clearly identified with signs. The co-op doesn’t sell any foods that have been genetically modified, have unnecessary preservatives or have high fructose corn syrup levels.

Another food co-op in Baltimore has sprouted up over the past year at the Whitelock Community Farm in Reservoir Hill.

“This neighborhood is often times referred to as a ‘food desert,’” said Elisa Lane, Whitelock Community Farm manager, “but working on this farm has shown me that the people in this community are eager to learn about farming and growing foods for themselves instead of having to rely on grocery stores that are miles away.”

The Department of Agriculture shows that food deserts, industrialized areas where healthy and affordable food is difficult to obtain, surround Reservoir Hill. Over 80 percent of people living in the nearby Fairmont neighborhood of West Baltimore have low access to foods, and over 25 percent of those low access households don’t have vehicles.

“We’re not asking the government to build a brand new grocery store in the middle of our neighborhood,” Lane said. “We just want to show city officials that providing the land access and resources for us to turn into gardens and fresh foods is a sustainable way to keep Reservoir Hill off of that food desert list.”

Allison Worman, a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, volunteers at the farm when she’s not in class.

“I’ve had some experience with gardens growing up in Wisconsin, but Whitelock has really expanded my knowledge,” Worman said. “I now know how to start growing seeds indoor, which helps with the turnover process. Having things in the soil at the farm while starting new crops at home means you always have something growing.”

Thor Nelson, president of the farm, said the information people take with them when they leave is an important part of a food co-op. Volunteers who work on the farm aren’t just raking up leaves or watering plants. They’re also learning which weeds to pull out, how to till the soil, how to landscape in order to benefit the plants, and what the proper seasons are for different fruits and vegetables.

“This isn’t a closed hobby for a few people to work on,” said Nelson. “This is an open community project that we hope will help change the eating habits and lives of those who live nearby through training and experience on the farm.”

For every couple of hours that you work on the farm, you are able to take home a small share of produce. The farm also honors food stamps and WIC coupons for low-income pregnant women and families with children.

Wade predicts the arrival of five or six additional food co-ops throughout Baltimore over the next decade. Her customers and members have expressed more support than she expected when she first transitioned her store into a co-op.

“There’s great potential for more co-ops in this city,” Wade said. “The idea of something being owned by the neighborhood that can never be sold is a fantastic reward for its residents. People are starting to become more aware of their own health and their own voice when it comes to food and community.”

Related stories

Neighborhood gardens engaging residents with healthy food options

Red chili peppers thriving at Whitelock Community FarmCommunity farms have been gaining popularity and support over the past decade in low-income areas of Baltimore City. Local residents are taking the initiative to transform vacant lots and empty patches of earth into sustainable, user-friendly gardens. Click here to read the entire story.

City residents aim to end food deserts

Caleb Lin's backyard garden thrives in December.Many Baltimore City citizens are adopting a new approach to sustainable living and smart eating in an effort to win the fight against food deserts. Backyard gardens, potted plants and shared community plots are helping pave the way to healthier lifestyles for the residents living in these low-income areas. Click here to read the entire store.

Infographics on food deserts in the U.S. and Baltimore.

Infographic 1

There are 6,500 food deserts in the continental U.S. There are 6,500 food deserts in the continental U.S. Click here for a larger view.

Infographic 2

13.5 million people living in food deserts have low access to a vehicle and live at least a mile away from the nearest grocery store or large supermarket. 13.5 million people living in food deserts have low access to a vehicle and live at least a mile away from the nearest grocery store or supermarket. Click here for a larger view.

Infographic 3

27% of Baltimore City residents live in or around food deserts and aren't within walking distance to a grocery store. 27% of Baltimore City’s residents live in or around a food desert and aren’t within walking distance to a grocery store. Click here for a larger view.

An interactive map of locations to buy and grow local foods.

Click here to see a map of farmers markets, food co-ops and community gardens in Baltimore.A map of farmers markets, community gardens and food co-ops Baltimore. Click here for a larger view.


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