February 17, 2011
Where there was once a block of run-down row homes in McElderry Park in East Baltimore, Maryland, there is now a burgeoning vegetable garden. The Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church started the garden to provide green space for the community and produce for the church’s food pantry.
Looking for a service opportunity for his students which would allow them to interact with their community and be active, Dominic Smith, a Spanish teacher at Cristo Rey High School in Fells Point, partnered with the church to help develop the plot. Dominic was kind enough to discuss with me his experience spearheading this innovative project.
LPL: Let’s start with the basics. What sort of work do the students do in the garden?
DS: The volunteers work on all sorts of different tasks, like picking up litter, preparing the soil, weeding, pruning, planting herbs and produce, harvesting, planting cover crop, and so on. I estimate that, with about 10 student and teacher volunteers per service day, we’ve collectively committed several thousand hours to the garden over the course of the planting and growing season.
LPL: How do you see the project fitting in with the mission of Cristo Rey High School?
DS: This project really reflects the school’s commitment to improving our students’ health. We were recently awarded a grant to increase physical activity and promote better nutrition in the school. The garden fits right in with that since it gets the kids outside and gives them a chance to be active together while learning more about how fresh produce is grown. That’s especially important for our kids. A lot of them either don’t eat, or eat out of Styrofoam. By growing and learning more about fresh fruits and vegetables, the kids are being exposed to alternatives to processed junk.
LPL: How have you made junk food alternatives seem more attractive to the kids?
DS: We’ve made a real effort to connect the vegetables we planted to the foods they like to eat. Rather than tell them to eat something else, we’re trying to show them where their family dishes come from and how healthy they can be compared to the Burger King next to the school.
LPL: What sorts of challenges have you faced?
DS: The primary challenges we faced up front were that the soil had fallen into bad shape and there was no water. We’ve been working hard to reinvigorate the land by planting nitrogen-rich cover crops and integrating native species. Our big success was getting water out to the plot. First, we made some rain barrels and then the church board and I worked through some connections we had with the city to set up a water line.
Despite all of that, we’ve still had a poor yield. Although we have had some moderate harvests, it would be great to walk into school with big bags of produce so that we’d be able to say, “Look at how much we’ve grown.” It’s really important to remember there are other ways of showing we’re successful – like physical activity and volunteer hours or the kids’ learning.
LPL: What are your plans for the future?
DS: I’m working on setting up propagating boxes to grow seedlings for planting next spring and I’m looking into plans to set up a drip irrigation system so that we use the water more effectively. In the future it will be necessary to find partners who can supply us with compost, soil amendments, landscaping materials, and the occasional use of a truck. Ultimately we’d like to have some low hoop houses to help us move to a growing calendar which better matches the school year.
The partnership between Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and the Amazing Grace Food Ministry is evidence of the community-building potential of urban gardens. With dedicated leadership from Dominic Smith, this collaboration adds to Baltimore’s growing green landscape.
-By Lisa Lagasse