Community Farms

Neighborhood ‘guerilla’ gardens engaging Baltimore City residents with healthy food options

red chilis
Red and green peppers are thriving at the Whitelock Community Farm in Reservoir Hill. The farm is home to over 27 different types of vegetation and produces food year-round.

Sarah Jean Alexander

Community 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.

The Whitelock Community Farm in Reservoir Hill is one example of the growth of urban agriculture in Baltimore.

“We really just kind of got tired of looking at [the vacant lots] so we did something called guerilla gardening,” said Ashe Smith, a member of the farm. “You go in, just take advantage of the space, and from there it has escalated into this.”

The farm began in the summer of 2010 with corn as the sole crop.  By the end of the year, the farm was also producing and selling radishes, carrots, lettuce and beets.  It now has over 27 different vegetables, with berry bushes on the way.

The idea of growing gardens in the middle of an urban area is still a new idea to many residents of the city.  However, providing readily available healthy produce is a strong seller.

“As a society, we have drifted so far from our roots, and we have a completely dysfunctional relationship with our food system,” Katie Dix, coordinator for the Community Greening Resource Network, said. “We need to start thinking about our food, how it shapes our identity, the consequences of the choices we are making and the responsibility we have to this planet and future generations.”

The resource network is a committee of the Parks & People Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to create and support educational, recreational and environmental programs and partnerships for the people in Baltimore.  For an annual fee of $10, the resource network provides access to the materials, resources, education and connections that gardens need to have a successful and sustainable green space.

Earlier this year, Parks & People helped the Whitelock farm buy a greenhouse, a purchase that has been vital to keeping produce growing even in the colder seasons.  Thor Nelson, president of the farm, said Parks & People have made things a lot easier since he decided to transform the vacant lot on Whitelock Street.

“Several times throughout the growing season, Parks & People hosts give-away days when members can pick up compost, soil and other plant materials,” Nelson said. “They also recruit volunteers to assist in the gardens in their network.  Getting involved with them was a great way to access information, resources and materials—especially when you are starting a new garden.”

The Ash Street Garden in Hampden is the pilot project of the Baltimore Free Farm, a sustainable collective in Baltimore, and is another example of community gardening in the city.  The members recently acquired additional property from the city, and the garden has already begun expanding.

Though it’s still only less than two years old, Ash Street boasts many different types of peppers, cucumbers, lettuce and even a thriving beehive.  The members have also started canning foods and providing canning workshops that the public can attend.

“We like to get the community involved as much as possible,” said Seth Wheeler, a worker on the garden and member of the Baltimore Free Farm. “The garden is open—there aren’t any gates or fences you need to pass through.  Keeping local interest up and being available to the community is important because we’re always looking for volunteers and helping hands.”

Adam Kurtz, a resident of Reservoir Hill who lives two blocks from the WCF, has visited both the farm on Whitelock Street and the Hampden garden.

“These urban gardens and farms have a great impact and presence in their respective communities,” Kurtz said. “I walk by Whitelock nearly everyday, and there are always different people getting involved and helping out.  Reservoir Hill has gotten a bad reputation over the past few decades, but I think the farm helps show the community what can happen if people get involved and try to make a difference.”

Angelo Cossentino, a Baltimore City policeman, says the crime rate has increased in Reservoir Hill over the past five years, but community action like the farm is a step toward the right direction for the people of this neighborhood.

The Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, a subsection of the Baltimore Department of Planning, is putting forth effort to support farms and farmers markets within the city.  They currently have 23 Neighborhood Food Advocates working in low-income areas and have logged over 170 hours to promote healthy eating and have spoken with over 420 residents.

Nelson can see the farm from his row home in Reservoir Hill.  He said the view of a green garden is a much better view than a vacant lot filled with broken glass and trash.

“Our goal with the farm is to really develop into a sustainable organization that can be a source of community pride and also fill a need of providing fresh vegetables,” he said. “Now it is not only producing food, but more importantly, it is promoting the long term health of the neighborhood.

Community Gardens, Farmers Markets, and Food Co-ops in Baltimore City

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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.

A Youtube video slideshow of the Whitelock Community Farm.

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