Urban Farming Coming to Baltimore’s Food Deserts

23 Nov, 2011

by Vanessa Barrington, via Grist.org,

Cities all over the country are addressing the lack of access to fresh and healthy food on the part of their residents, but few are in as much of a bind as Baltimore.

Like Detroit, and other cities known for their class and race disparity, Baltimore has been losing population and gaining vacant land at a fast pace in recent decades. The result is vast swaths of neighborhoods located far from grocery stores. Baltimore gave itself a D on its own 2010 Health Disparities Report Card, which found that 43% of the residents in the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods had little access to healthy foods compared to 4% in predominantly white neighborhoods. Meanwhile, more than two thirds of the city’s adults and almost 40 percent of high school students are overweight or obese.

In other words, the situation is a dire one. But it’s not all bad news; in fact, the city of Baltimore is going to great lengths to make a change.

Speaking on a panel at the recent Community Food Security Coalition Conference in Oakland, CA., Abby Cocke, of Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability, and Laura Fox, of the city health department’s Virtual Supermarket Program, outlined two approaches to address the city’s food deserts. Both were presenting programs that have launched since Grist last reported on Baltimore’s efforts to address food justice. And both programs come under the auspices of The Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, a rare intergovernmental collaboration between the city’s Department of Planning, Office of Sustainability, and Health Department. They also show how an active, involved city government and a willingness to try new ideas can change the urban food landscape for the better.

According to Cocke, Baltimore’s Planning Department has a new mindset. She calls it a “place-based” model. “In the past,” she says, “growth was seen as the only way to improve the city, but we’re starting to look at ways to make our neighborhoods stronger, healthier, and more vibrant places at the low density that they’re at now.”

Intercropping farms within the urban landscape

In cities like Oakland — where well-known urban farmer Novella Carpenter was slapped with a large fine recently, resulting in a public push for changes to the zoning laws — shifts in urban policy have been largely reactive. Other cities, like Detroit, have taken a hands-off approach. Thanks to Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability, however, the city is actively encouraging the creation of small entrepreneurial farms on vacant lots to bring more healthy fresh food to city residents.

In 2010, planning officials met with urban farmers to find out what they would need to grow food in the city. Planners mapped out 20 publicly-owned parcels (ranging from one to 12 acres) that met the farmers’ criteria. City officials then encouraged experienced commercial and non-profit groups to submit a business plan. Of the ten initial responses, four commercial farms — including Five Seeds Farm and Seed and Cycle — and one nonprofit, Real Food Farm, were qualified to start farming.

The parcels will be leased to the would-be farmers for a mere $100 a year and the city will make start-up capital available for those who need it. Baltimore is also rewriting its entire zoning code, one major goal of which is to facilitate farming within city limits. In addition to making its citizens healthier, says Cocke, the city hopes to “transform vacant lots, increase environmental awareness among its citizens, create green jobs, and raise its profile as a leader.”

Urban farming is a useful way to make more people aware of where their fruit and vegetables comes from, but it can only provide so much food. That’s where Baltimore’s Virtual Supermarket program — a creative public-private partnership that utilizes the city’s libraries to bring fresh groceries to remote neighborhoods — enters the picture.

Click here to read the rest of this article at Grist.org.

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