2019 Week 6: Environment & Food Access
I wanted to wait to write this week’s reflection until after the Network met with Strength 2 Love, Carrine’s placement. We met with Reverend Darriel Harris today to pick his brain and talk about future opportunities for collaboration.
Currently, our collaboration with Strength 2 Love is limited to us selling their produce at our farmers’ market. We have thought about doing maybe some sort of pre-order online system, so we went to talk about that. But our meeting spiraled into a much larger conversation about nonprofit work.
Reverend Harris talked to us about the struggles of turning an organization around. He told us that he basically helped rebuild Strength 2 Love after it was close to shutting down. Now, he wonders about the future of the organization: what would staffing look like? What would be the next best step? How about a produce stand?
Strength 2 Love is almost like a sister organization to the Network. Reverend Harris and my supervisor Pastor Brown were actually classmates at Morgan State. Like the Network, Strength 2 Love also grew out of a church and kept a lot of the same ministry outreach elements and values. So a lot of Strength 2 Love’s concerns are our same concerns. What do the next steps for our organization look like? Should we hire more full-time staff? How do we keep ourselves organized?
Sometimes I worry that organizations become redundant, that there are too many people trying to fix one issue. For example, Pastor Brown likes to use the example of food pantries. There’s a lot of food pantries and soup kitchens in Baltimore. But how many organizations are trying to get to the root cause of food insecurity? To get to the root cause of food insecurity, you have to tackle it from all sides. The Network aims to take a culturally sensitive, environmentally friendly, age-appropriate, educational stance on it. But we don’t know much about farming. So we have to ask our partners. And when they don’t know something, they have to ask their partners.
For the future, I envision some sort of Baltimore nonprofit database sorted into categories, much like how our placements are sorted. This would make cross-organizational collaboration easier. Maybe even like a web or some sort of visual map of who works closely with who — that would be an incredibly useful resource.
Immigration has always been something my mind has been on. I remember my mother telling me stories of my ancestors from her side of the family, refugees fleeing antisemitic violence in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. I also remember the radio silence from my father about the origins of his side of the family, stolen Africans brought to South Carolina to work. Even then, I understood that immigration was about agency, about deciding to make a better life for yourself and your family in another nation.
I remember “cultural days” in my day camp growing up when each child would bring a dish from their family’s country of origin. Kids would hold up their oxtail or their plantains or their empanadas and talk about how their mother learned to make them as a child in their old country and brought them here.
One of my first political memories was the “birther” controversy, ironically enough peddled by the current president, that surrounded then-Senator Barack Obama. I remember hearing my mother talking about how some people said that Obama was a Muslim who had been born in Kenya. I was confused- everyone was acting as if these were offensive traits!
I’ve been aware of immigration as one of my closest friends in high school dealt with his mother having to jump through the hoop of temporary return to Mexico in the hopes of legal residence in the U.S.
I’ve been aware of immigration as I watched a family member, an educated, employed, wealthy white woman from a rich European nation, receive legal status and then citizenship as poor immigrants from Central America with nowhere to go are abused and mistreated.
I’ve been aware of immigration as I watch the atrocities occurring at the southern border, as I read about immigrants going forty days without showers, as the leaders of a protest I attended recently read out a seemingly endless list of names of those killed by ICE and CBP.
But I didn’t think my job would have anything to do with immigration.
My first week of work, my boss took me along to a meeting she was headed to, a convening of the Community Advisory Board for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, of which she is a part, and the Hispanic Advisory Board. At this meeting, a draft of Baltimore Police Department’s Policy 1021, which eliminates almost all contact with ICE, was given out, and we discussed resources available through Safe City Baltimore to immigrants who have been detained.
I thought this would just be a one-time thing. After all, I had just started, and she wanted to expose me to a variety of things.
However, by this time I didn’t quite understand Baybrook. It’s made up of two rough areas, dubbed “county-side”- Brooklyn Park in Anne Arundel County- and “city-side”- Brooklyn and Curtis Bay in Baltimore City. The city-side communities are roughly a third Latinx, of which a large proportion are recent immigrants. Additionally, this population is young and rapidly rising; many of the younger grades at Maree G Farring Elementary School are over half Latinx, again with a heavy proportion of immigrants.
This meant that my surveys had to have a backside in Spanish, and that I often had to to abruptly switch from “Hi! My name’s Bentley and I’m from Greater Baybrook Alliance” to “Hola, soy Bentley de Greater Baybrook Alliance.”
But more than that, it meant that I had to think intentionally about how every aspect of my work was affected by this issue.
“What makes Latinx families, especially immigrants less likely to want to engage with the community and with our organization?” is a question that my supervisor and I discussed briefly, meetings I’ve been in have been devoted to, and I’ve tossed around my head.
There’s the fear, there’s the open hostility from many non-Latinx residents of the neighborhood who see services being provided to new Latinx residents as a slap in the faces of those whose families moved here generations ago. There’s the language barrier. There’s the abject lack of resources for immigrants and Latinx families in Baybrook- service providers forget immigrants in Baltimore exist beyond Southeast.
Now, I’m writing a guide for community lot projects- when residents work to better a vacant lot into a community space. I know that many of the people likely to follow my guide are many of the people who enjoy being the faces of communities, whose families have lived here for generations, who may, through conscious or unconscious means, exclude the largely immigrant Latinx population from the planning process.
If I can do nothing else, I want to make my guide such that you cannot read it, heed it, and take it to heart while still excluding these populations. That’s not incredibly systemic- Latinx and immigrant communities will still be terrorized, but what I can do, at least in my role at GBA, is ensure that they’re seen, consulted, and valued as integral parts of the Baybrook community.
This week was different than other weeks. For starters, I went to the office on Monday and Tuesday so that I could do some paper work for the farm. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do because I like down and dirty and do what has to be done. But I did it because it was something that needed to be done. It felt really good because the person that handles the paperwork for the farm was juggling a lot of things so having me there for two was a really big help. I even told him that if he emailed me some of the paperwork, I would do some of it at home because I knew how much he would appreciate it. The rest of the week I was at the farm. It was extremely hot. It was the first time in the internship that I legit did not want to go to work. When I was at the farm I felt like I had to work 2 times as hard to do the regular tasks that I had been doing all summer. We also filmed a little documentary at the farm which was nice. The documentary was being filmed for some of the people who donated money to the farm. Although it felt a little weird for someone to be recording me picking and bundling chard, I knew that the documentary would raise awareness and money for Strength to Love. The week came to an end very nicely because I got to give a tour to some students. They were from DC and they were in charge of a little urban garden of their own. They came to see the farm just to learn how other urban farms were run. They were so attentive and really wanted to absorb as much information as possible and I loved it.
My placement overlaps with the placements of the folks within my peer mentor group, specifically Carrine and Ze, who both work on farms in different parts of the city. Ze is at Whitelock and Carrine is at Strength to Love 2 Farm, two green spaces that are informally protected by Baltimore Green Space. The organization, with community partner approval, has deemed these two locations as QCMOS’s, or Quality Community Managed Open Space. A QCMOS designation is given to spaces that have been recognized as vital community components that are located on land that is city-owned. This means that although the space is managed and maintained by the community, the land still belongs to the city. This can bring up a lot of unforeseen complications, with the most threatening being that the land is sold to developers. Luckily, the QCMOS designation makes it hard for developers to come across these lands because the city is not allowed to actively advertise them.
Realizing that my placement had connections with 2 of the other people in my group did not surprise me initially because it made sense. Of course, we would be connected in some way, we fall under the same category, but as I thought about it more I realized that this meant some really great things. My placement is connected to two green spaces that are in two different neighborhoods, meaning that it’s making an impact within two very different communities and those are just two of the hundreds of green spaces that my placement is connected to. It gives me a warm feeling knowing that the organization I work for has connections to almost every neighborhood within Baltimore City and this is truly the motivation behind my desire to watch the organization grow.
Recently, the work that I have been doing with the No Boundaries Health Committee has been reminding me of the larger food system that the Fresh at the Avenue stall is part of, in addition to the food systems that I engage in, on an everyday basis, outside of my work. I have been tasked with researching food distributors and local growers near the Sandtown-Winchester area, and cultivating relationships with these community partners, through social media and over email, for the sake of building and maintaining ties with these partners, in addition to finding new suppliers for the produce that is sold at the stall. As a result of this effort, I was sent to volunteer with the Bonner community garden in Sandtown-Winchester. At this site, I learned about the history behind the garden — fifteen years ago, Justine Bonner grew tired of the trash being dumped in an empty lot near her house by contractors and developers, and decided to plant a garden in order to beautify the space. As the garden expanded, volunteers from within the neighborhood were able to cultivate the soil to plant flowers and vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, and potatoes.
Bonner Garden is located on a block lined by abandoned houses. As I’ve learned in my Public Health classes (Environment and Your Health, Public Health, Policy and Politics: A Primer) and as is obvious walking through many parts of Baltimore, while homelessness remains an issue, there are around 17,000 abandoned houses in Baltimore, vacant buildings too expensive to renovate or demolish, that often become sites for drug markets. As I volunteered at Bonner Garden, I thought about how Bonner Garden was tackling many public health issues at once: a house had been razed, leaving behind an empty lot that was both attracting crime and had become a dumping site for illegal trash, and the space was converted into a green space where fresh produce was grown. And through the community partnership between the Bonner Garden and my organization, the No Boundaries Coalition, the produce grown in that green space can be made accessible to the members of the same Sandtown-Winchester community that Bonner Garden is located in, at very affordable prices. Essentially, a local, affordable, sustainable food system was created through this partnership. When thinking about the definition of a food system that I have learned in my public health classes — the path that food travels from field to fork, including the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming, and disposal of the food — the lack of sustainability of the majority of food systems in the United States, and the impact of food systems on the environment, has always been emphasized in my classes. I have learned about how industrial agriculture contributes heavily to greenhouse gas emissions, especially as a result of transportation. And while I was helping to volunteer at the Bonner Garden, I thought about how rare it is that the produce I consume is grown locally as a result of the current global food system, in which tons of energy is expended exporting products at an international level. But however unsustainable food systems might be, they are necessary for the health of a community, and Bonner Garden, with the help of the No Boundaries Health Committee, utilized one of the many abandoned spaces in Baltimore and created a food system where there was otherwise none that were adequate.
Through my research, I also learned about another produce distributor: Strength to Love Farms, a farm alliance that did something similar to Bonner Garden — transformed a vacant land into a farm. Furthermore, Strength to Love Farms also runs a workforce development program that hires incarcerated individuals. Researching all of the similar food justice initiatives in Baltimore has been impactful for me because prior to working at No Boundaries, I did not realize the ways in which food justice can be connected to other public health issues in Baltimore such as abandoned housing and mass incarceration. And yet, the food system is intimately tied with racial injustices — the map of food deserts in Baltimore overlaps with the map of redlined districts in Baltimore, so of course food justice needs to be placed in the context of all of these other issues which have historically afflicted Baltimore and the United States, such as housing discrimination, police brutality, and the prison-industrial complex. My experience with the No Boundaries Coalition has cemented this connection between environmental health and social justice that I knew existed, but had never seen practically implemented through a program.
Though I am really enjoying my time at Whitelock this summer, the tiniest conflicts and the hot weather finally got a hold of us and reminded me that life is not just happiness and fun, and we sometimes have to face and tackle the issues that had been accumulating for a long time.
I still remember when I came to the farm for the first time, how much in awe I was of the orderliness and prosperity of the farm, two big lots on both sides of the street with their respective tool sheds, hoop houses, and irrigation systems. I was quite excited to learn what the secrets are to maintain the farm at such a high level with only two full-time staff. However, after a couple of weeks into the internship, I gradually learned that a lot of the standards are slowly slipping, due to the fact that we do not have enough manpower and are barely keeping up with the schedule. For each week, we need to harvest for Wednesday and Saturday CSA, Thursday mobile market, and Saturday farm stand and Waverly market. It is a lot to keep up with, and this tight schedule restrained us from looking further in the future and come up with projects that will benefit the farm in the long term, like weeding and making new beds in the south lot hoop house, or rearranging tools in the shed so we will have an easier time finding them.
To make things worse, the weather this week had not been very kind to us. The hot summer heat means that our youth workers cannot work outside, and one of our staff members really don’t feel comfortable working outside either. It put even more responsibilities upon the shoulders of our other staff and me. And it took us a long time on Friday to get everything ready for the market the next day. After I wake up the next morning, as usual I rode my bike to the farm. All of a sudden, a tire went flat, and I had to walk with my bike in the excruciating heat even though I could have just called my supervisor and say I will come later after I put my bike back. When I got to the farm sweating all over my shirt, my supervisor told me that the other staff member decided not to show up. Oh well, what can I say, I only got 30 minutes left to set up the farm stand and people were already lining up around the corner. So without saying a word, I set up the farm stand by myself while my supervisor had to deal with other business around the farm. And when everything was almost ready and I finally calmed myself down to welcome the customers, the other staff member came and got in a huge argument with my supervisor. Exactly the seasonings we wanted in a hot day like this where we can probably make a fried egg on the concrete sidewalk. To not bore everyone with a list of what else went down yesterday, let’s just say the heat got control of our minds and sparks were coming out everywhere.
I am a bit saddened to see that our beloved farm is slipping when there are only two weeks left in my internship. I hope that it’s just me being overly sensitive, and the real situation is not as bad as I am imagining it to be. I hope everyone can get along well and we can rediscover the passion and the virtue of hard work we now desperately need on the farm.Tags: Baltimore Green Space, BCFSN, Black Church Food Security Network, CIIP, ciip 2019, Greater Baybrook Alliance, No Boundaries Coalition, Strength to Love 2 Farm, Whitelock Community Farm