Hoop dreams: A Baltimore community farm gets winterized

as seen from Whitelock St.

as seen from Whitelock St.

On a recent crisp October weekend, Reservoir Hill community members, friends, farmers, and two bus loads of Johns Hopkins undergraduate students gathered at the Whitelock Community Farm for a modern barn raising. The various volunteer groups, totaling close to 50 people, built an inexpensive but practical hoop house using a clear plastic roof and a PVC-pipe spine to extend the newly established farm’s growing season. Construction of the 20 foot by 30 foot hoop house was managed by Thor Nelson, an architect/planner who lives a block from the farm site, and paid for by a grant from Parks and People. The Reservoir Hill Improvement Council (RHIC) chipped in Federal Stimulus money to fund materials for a shed and farm stand on the property, and coordinated the volunteer support from Johns Hopkins. Read More >

Maryland’s Grocery Store Tax Credit Bill Could Improve Food Deserts

Maryland House Bill 1135, the Grocery Store Property Tax Credit Bill, passed the House yesterday with 138-0 votes! The bill grants a property tax credit to grocery stores throughout the state located in low-income areas. Delegate Justin Ross, the main sponsor of the bill, represents Prince George’s County, an urban county surrounding Washington, DC. Delegate Ross clearly sees the need for attracting new and better grocery stores into low income areas, especially low income urban areas, to help provide better access to healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables (the bill stipulates that a grocery store is defined as entity where “at least 20% of the gross receipts of which are 3% derived from the retail sale of fresh produce”).

Baltimore's Food Deserts

Baltimore's Food Deserts

The lack of quality supermarkets and groceries in low income areas has been receiving much greater attention recently. And these underserved areas are being referred to as “food deserts.” While there is no strict definition of a food desert, the term generally mean areas that do not have easy access (within walking distance in cities or a reasonable driving distance in rural areas) to a supermarket, notably the most reliable and most utilized source for healthy foods. The USDA’s Economic Research Service just published an article on food deserts in their March Amber Waves magazine. The concern comes from a greater appreciation of the role access to healthy foods plays in one’s diet. It is not enough to recommend that people eat “5 a Day” and educate people about how to shop for healthy foods and prepare them. This will do little good if people don’t have access to the recommended foods. We at the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) are excited by the recent attention that the “food environment” is receiving (for a detailed examination see Policy Link study).

The issue has come to the attention of local government officials as well – in 2008 former Baltimore City Mayor Sheila Dixon created the Baltimore Food Policy Task Force, of which CLF’s Anne Palmer was an active member. The Task Force’s report lists 10 recommendations to improve access; however, many of these recommendations have short-term impact and rely on alternative and seasonal sources for produce. People need access to healthy food year round, again which can be most reliably found at supermarkets and grocery stores. The Task Force recognized the lack of quality supermarkets in the city, but also recognized that the solution to the problem was long-term and they were tasked with looking for short-term, actionable recommendations. HB 1135 is perhaps one long-term solution to attracting the kind of supermarkets Baltimore needs (and that are needed in other low income areas in Maryland). The bill also leaves room for both large chain supermarkets and smaller grocery stores (even corner stores?!) to qualify as a “grocery” – if they can prove that their primary business is selling food at retail and that 20% of their profits come from produce. This flexibility could prove useful in finding creative solutions to food deserts, in that large, chain supermarkets may not be the answer for all locations. Read More >

Urban Chicken Farming

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Two very curious chickens peck at my camera

This past Saturday, the Baltimore Food Makers held their monthly potluck in Northeast Baltimore at the home of an urban chicken farming couple. Our hosts distilled a lifetime of farming know-how into a short tour of their backyard chicken coop, and fielded questions about their three hens, poultry health, nutrition, and productivity. Apparently, three hens can produce about seven eggs a week this time of year. When asked how their neighbors liked living near chickens, they said most were agreeable. One neighbor was leery of living near chickens, but after receiving eggs as gifts he apparently changed his tune and now wants to bird-sit when they are away on vacation.

I was excited to see some of my Baltimore neighbors obviating the poultry industry by raising their own hens for eggs. As this was my first encounter with urban chicken farming I wanted to learn about the Baltimore City ordinance allowing chickens, which reads:

[Baltimore City Health Code, Title 2, 2-106; Title 10, Subtitles 1 and 3]

Chickens.

1. No person may own, keep, or harbor any chickens without:

a. Obtaining a permit from the Bureau of Animal Control; and

b. Register with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, Domestic Poultry and Exotic Bird Registration Division.

2. No more than 4 chickens of the age of 1 month may be kept.

3. All chickens must be confined at all times to a movable pen.

a. No pen may be closer than 25 feet to any residence.

b. Each pen must be kept clean, free of all odors and materials that can attract rodents.

c. Each pen must be moved frequently to minimize turf destruction and the build up of manure borne pathogens such as coccidiosis and roundworm.

d. Pens with feed boxes and nest boxes must allow 2 square feet per hen.

4. The chickens must be provided with shade during warm weather.

5. Potable water and proper feed must be made available.

6. All chickens must be provided with access to a well-constructed shelter that provides suitable protection from inclement weather.

7. All chickens must be afforded veterinary care if they are known or suspected to be sick or injured.

For more information about urban bird farming in Baltimore, visit the Charm City Chickens, or for general information see any of the great blogs/web sites (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc) dedicated to this endeavor.

Dave Love

Farming our Schools

When is the last time you walked around an urban public high school in the United States?  For most of us, it’s been a while.  For me, it was just last month and I will tell you what I noticed when I walked around.  It wasn’t the dilapidated buildings, the lack of experienced teachers, or the missing vocational and practical trades that disappeared a long time ago with shrinking budgets.  I noticed land.  I saw opportunity.

What some say is the last vestige of the “commons” in America, our public school system sits on an incredible amount of land!  Walk around a public high school and you see land that is not being used; it’s either being under-utilized or it is completely abandoned.  Pavement and asphalt is the default, and green-space upkeep costs too much money for strapped urban districts.  Was it ever used?  I don’t know, but it’s time to utilize this public space for the community. 

As we stare at our nation’s expanding waistlines and the “franken-foods” that dominate our store shelves, we realize that what the communities of our great nation need is real food.  We’ve watched the obesity rates in our children triple in the last two decades, and we are left with no choice but to creatively respond to this epidemic.  If we don’t, there is a good chance they may become the first generation in our history to live a shorter life span than their parents. 

As a Government and Economics teacher in a deeply urban school in California, I come face to face with disturbing daily realities.  Recently, a 16 year old Latina student came up to me in astonishment and asked, “Are you telling me that a lemon is a fruit?”  Equally astonished are the students that walk out to the school garden and marvel at the sweet peas they can pick fresh off the vine.  “I never knew that came out of a flower,” I’ve heard them gasp.  They recoil at the sight of dirt touching a piece of produce, yet they don’t blink at paying $2 for bottled water that is less regulated than the water coming out of their tap.  I don’t blame my students for a system that produces 3,800 calories per day per person (we only need half that amount) and then uses the most sophisticated marketing tools on the planet to get our youth to consume them.  As a teacher, I have learned that you must accept your students “where they are” because getting angry about how they got there is wasted energy.  Accept the challenge and then work like hell to help them reach their potential.  I’ve accepted that the industrialized food companies got to my students first, and now I know through local food production in the schools, I can help them become healthier once again. Read More >

Baltimore Food Makers potluck

On the recommendation of a friend, I had to good fortune to attended the Baltimore Food Makers monthly potluck this Saturday to share home-grown, home-preserved and home-made food with a group of ~30 “food makers.”  Before eating we all gathered around the spread of food and each maker discussed with zeal his or her dish– covering the smallest details about prep, food sourcing, and questions from the crowd.   As the discussion of each dish drew to a close I felt a collective sigh as we acknowledged the embodied time and love poured into the food.  I eagerly watched as pickled watermelon rind, cured duck and beef, bison jerky, bbq tempeh, cornbread, black-eyed peas, and other delicious dishes were uncovered the large dining room table.  My plate, below, was full of tasty bites in no time.

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The Baltimore Food Makers is ~1 yr old group that provides a forum for sharing skills and resources about cooking, eating and farming for those in Baltimore.  They have a great list of local food sources, and an active google group with >100 members.  The theme of this potluck was “Meat / Faux-Meat — AKA Making do with Meat, Making do without.” To give more background, here is an excerpt from the potluck flyer:

When it comes to meat, there is even more of an incentive to make do with small amounts of it or none at all.  Meat is expensive, there are environmental implications to it on a large scale and there are easily debatable ethical implications to it as well.  Some of us choose to cut back on how much meat we eat, some of us find different places to purchase it from, and some of us choose to do away with it entirely.

This month’s potluck is about how you find creative ways of using meat, and/or how you use meat substitutes to take the place of meat.  On the carnivorous side, this might including stretching some very small amount of meat into a big dish, curing/smoking meat to preserve it and therefore make it last longer, using odd normally unused bits (i.e. Aliza’s chicken feet) or any other creative use of meat.  On the herbivorous side, for the vegetarians and vegans in the group, this might include uses of tofu, tempeh, seitan, TVP (I’ll never understand the branding department that came up with this name) or anything else that might be faux-meat.

…If you do bring a dish with meat, please make sure the meat was raised someplace where the animals are treated well (i.e. free-range, pasture/grass-fed or simply knowing the farmer who was involved and what the life of the animal was like).

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Everybody that I talked to was friendly and inviting.  Conversions about our favorite recipes for fermented drinks were washed down with home-made sweet and dry cider, ginger beer, and kombucha.  After munching on vegan dark chocolate cake and a sliver of flan, I learned about curing meat in a make-shift basement drying rack.

We didn’t shy away from discussing the risks of curing and canning either, as I learned more about methods for preserving food through fermentation and canning in a high salt and low pH environment.  One disease that home canners/fermenters are at more risk for is botulism, a paralytic illness, caused by the toxin produced from a rod-shaped, anaerobic bacteria, Clostridium botulinum that is present in soil and can proliferate in non-refrigerated, perishable foods.  Foodborne botulism  can be dangerous for infants eating home-canned baby food (Armada et al., 2003).   Ways to inhibit C. botulinum while home-canning food are by controlling pH (pH <4.5) and heat pasteurizing food  to >250 deg F in a pressure cooker for 20 min (CDC).

I’m looking forward to the next Food Maker potluck, and sharing some of my own safely-canned spicy green beans, kimche (fermented cabbage), and idli (steamed, fermented dal cakes).   I’m excited to continue learning from others who have many more years experience farming and cooking.   With the Baltimore Food Makers, eating delicious food is easy– but with the right mix of regional ingredients and community, sharing a meal is an incredible way to re-build our local food systems from the ground up.

– Dave Love

Maryland Governor’s new plan for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay blends conservation and aquaculture

The Chesapeake Bay – Landsat photo
Image via Wikipedia

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley held a press conference in Annapolis, MD last Thursday to announce a plan to restore the oyster population to the Chesapeake Bay by prohibiting oyster harvesting in selected areas (Baltimore Sun; oyster plan pdf).Those most affected by the plan will be MD watermen; O’Malley offered them $2.5 M in funding to transition from oyster tonging/dredging to commercial oyster aquaculture (Baltimore Sun). This shift from oyster harvesting to aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay is just one example of the global trend toward aquaculture.

Not only will oyster aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay provide jobs to underemployed watermen, but it will reduce stress on overharvested native oysters. Farmed oysters are considered a sustainable seafood product and were awarded Seafood Watch’s “best choice” label, because farmed oysters clean the water as they feed and any spat (juvenile oysters) that are produced as a result of the aquaculture operation can actually repopulate surrounding areas. In many ways, oyster aquaculture is a net benefit for the environment (Ulanowicz and Tuttle et al., 1992), which is not always true for other forms of aquaculture (“Marine Aquaculture in the US,” Pew Oceans Commission Report pdf).

I’d like to thank Governor O’Malley for addressing the oyster crisis in the Chesapeake Bay, and the MD Oyster Advisory Commission, whose January 2009 report (pdf) appears to lay the foundation for much of what Governor O’Malley proposed.

-Dave Love

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The Toughest Test

Great Kids Farm Greenhouse

Great Kids Farm Greenhouse

On Tuesday, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future honored Baltimore City Public Schools’ Great Kids Farm with an award for visionary leadership in local food procurement and food education. The school system is now able to provide local milk, fruits, and vegetables with meals it serves and is working to help its more than 200 schools and programs develop their own gardens. Throughout the month numerous articles on this trend towards local food production have been published. For example, The Baltimore Sun published an article about the first harvest of the new one-acre garden at McDonogh School in Owings Mills. This isn’t a new trend. In fact, McDonogh School began in 1873 as a school for orphan boys who grew their own foods and farming continued at the School until the early 1960s.

Coincidentally, The New York Times published an article Tuesday entitled “Schools’ Toughest Test: Cooking” about the impressive efforts that New York City’s Middle School 137 has made in redefining their lunch program. The article proves that it is possible to “entice nearly 2,000 students at the height of adolescent squirreliness to eat a good lunch,” but that it is definitely not easy: ingredients must be approved by the Department of Education, meet the food cravings of a culturally diverse student body, and then there is the need for cooking equipment—according to the article, only half of New York’s 1,385 school kitchens have enough cooking and fire-suppression equipment to actually cook. The efforts by Sharon Barlatier, the manager of the middle school cafeteria, that are described are commendable.

The article is a must read for anyway who questions the practicality of providing quality lunch programs in urban schools nationwide.

Meeting local needs in a movement for global change

In addressing far-reaching global issues like public health, nutrition, social justice and the environment, the road to creating positive change in these areas often begins in our own neighborhood.

Baltimore City, home to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and the School of Public Health, suffers from stark disparities in access to healthy foods.  A 2008 study found predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods offered significantly fewer options for healthy foods than their predominantly white and higher-income counterparts.  This phenomenon is not unique to our city, and the downstream effects to conditions like obesity and diabetes are all too familiar among low-income and minority neighborhoods across the nation.

There is, in the eyes of some, a touch of irony in the proximity between the country’s premier school of public health and some of the most severe nutritional and health disparities.  A converse perspective, however, highlights an opportunity – and a responsibility – to bring the school’s ample faculty of mind, energy and capital to bear upon these concerns.  A strong company of faculty, staff and students, working alongside community leaders, businesses and laypersons, has been continually engaged in a concerted movement to meet the nutritional and health needs of a city that hungers for genuine sustenance.

Read More >