2021 Week 1: Environment & Food Access


My past week has been filled with educational material about reciprocal economics systems such as co-ops and buying clubs. I learned a lot about alternative business practices that held people above profits. When explaining it to my friends they seem concerned about how it is possible to make a profit selling produce so inexpensively, but the reality I am learning is that it is entirely possible to make a profit and still sell quality goods at an accessible price. The profit is still necessary to keep the business afloat, therefore naturally there is money to be made because that will be to benefit of the consumer to stay open. It is a new perspective that looks at profit as a goal not in itself but as a benefit to the consumer. Even though I once thought this to be an oxymoron, co-ops and buying clubs embody community economics.

When I got to work at the market was met with more familiar and delightful faces. We also had these giant cabbages that were a big hit. They reminded me of the cabbage man from Avatar the Last Airbender who always gets caught in a chase. His cabbages get ruined and he subsequently yells “MY CABBAGES THE TRAGEDY.” Instead of a yell of anguish about cabbage, I heard a yell of happiness from some of the customers. One customer acclaimed, “I HAVE NOT HAD FRESH CABBAGE IN YEARS.” Another customer brought all her necessities to the register to be rung up, then upon hearing that it was all only 5 dollars, she shrieked with joy and picked up two more cabbages!
I see this cabbage-packed day as evidence of the impact Fresh at the Avenue has. Its existence brings quality fresh food to people who perhaps have not had any in years. I never thought I would see people so excited over a leafy green, but you see something new every day on the avenue.


This week, one of my projects was to go on a hike in Herring Park. Yes, you heard that right — for work, I got to go on a beautiful hike. Me and my supervisor, Clarissa, set out at 11AM to Herring Park, where we met up with some folks from Impact Hub and Friends of Herring Park. The hike was an easy one, straight and flat through the park. The scenery was varied and lush — a flowing river to our right, towering forests that opened up to a wide, massive field, trails that suddenly broke onto a roadside. We took our time walking the trail, stopping to ask questions, admire the nature, or take detours (we scaled a path up to an abandoned old camping lodge!).

Intermixed with all of this beauty which I had not known previously existed, having never been to Herring Park before, was a stunning realization that undercut all of the scenery around us: how many problems the park was facing. Only noticeable to the keen eye was the eroding banks, the polluted water, the trash intermixed with the plants. As we walked through, our guide from Friends of Herring Park told us of the struggles they had had with the city to fix the river banks, to clean the water, to create a safe and walkable park environment. One pathway, she pointed out, was too narrow and windy for an emergency vehicle to get through, essentially cutting the grounds in half. It severely restricted the functionality of the park — if someone was to break their ankle, she explained, there would be no way for help to reach them. I discovered, unsurprisingly, the flowing water that looked so appealing to me, sparkling in the hot summer sun, was rank with runoff from nearby sewage and toxic waste plants — wading in it wouldn’t exactly be a pleasant experience. This park that was the only source of green space for this neighborhood was overrun with problems that the city wasn’t or couldn’t help with. The burden fell onto Friends of Herring Park, who worked earnestly and steadfastly to preserve the grounds.

Herring Park is still a gorgeous place to be — I long to go back with my bike so I can ride around on the trails. But it also reflects some of the greater problems in Baltimore City, such as the environmental degradation, a disconnect between communities and their government, and a lack of adequate funding and proper design for public park spaces. Herring Park is an invaluable green space to residents in that community; green spaces all over the city are of extreme importance, and yet face similar problems. Other green spaces may not have the same level of dedicated volunteers as Friends of Herring Park does. It is extremely important that green spaces are maintained and prioritized, especially in otherwise marginalized areas, for the health and benefit of the communities around them. Walking around Herring Park on that afternoon, I gained much more than I thought I would’ve on a simple hike — I learned about the complexities of the city and nature around me, and began a greater reflection of how we can work to solve it.


One thing that I learned at my first week at the Black Church Food Security Network was how interconnected the issue of food access/food sovereignty is to other issues like public health and urban planning/infrastructure. Yesterday, I went to the community garden launch at Allen AME church in West Baltimore, where BCFSN is a sponsor and collaborator. I spoke to the reverend, Pastor White, about the need for a garden in her neighborhood. She told me that the church was the only building in an entire neighborhood of rowhomes — that the lot where the community garden is being built used to be one of many vacant, overgrown lots. She also mentioned that there were storm drains on the same block of the church that didn’t properly drain rainwater, and would attract mosquitoes and pool trash. She emphasized that the launch of the garden wasn’t only a step toward Black food sovereignty, but also reclaiming and beautifying a long ignored neighborhood.

I learned further about this through our team meetings led by Pastor Brown at BCFSN. The meetings, meant to discuss logistics and organizational tasks, are preceded by Popular Education discussions, where we talk about a chosen reading for the week. This past week, we read an introductory chapter to a textbook about the food system written by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and often studied by public health students at the JH School of Public Health. The reading also emphasized the relationship between food access and larger economic and social systems, in the same way Pastor White did. However, although the reading was informative, we also criticized the capitalist and white supremacist lens in which the food system was written about. Pastor Brown brought up an interesting point that I’ve been thinking about all week: if this is the educational text that the country’s next healthcare professionals, scientists, and policymakers are learning from, what does that say about the future of the food system?


My biggest takeaway from this week comes from the Black Yield Institute (BYI) which is an organization that the Farm Alliance works closely with and whose farm, the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden is a member of the Alliance. On this Juneteenth weekend, I was able to tune into their virtual programming celebrating “Maroonteenth” which honors the history of maroonage, a term I had never heard of before (says a lot about US public education!). Maroonage (also spelled marronage) describes the process by which enslaved Africans freed themselves beginning long before the Emancipation Proclaimation and established permanent or semi-permanent communities. In his speech, BYI Servant Director Eric Jackson proposes that Juneteenth be called and framed as Maroonteenth, because it acknowledges both pathways to freedom, which he refers to as liberation “through the white pen” and liberation “through the Black hand.” This shift in terminology illustrates how important language can be in the framing of a concept, an issue, or history.

In the realm of food access, take for example, the commonly used term “food desert.” Food “desert” implies a lack of food, instead of a lack of healthy food, thus prompting the Baltimore City Health Department to replace the term with “Healthy Food Priority Areas.” However, both these terms are flawed because they frame the issue simply in terms of access instead of one of sovereignty. Black activists prefer “food apartheid” instead, because it more accurately describes how food insecurity is intertwined with a history of redlining, predatory marketing, and other racist policies. Applying the idea of “the white pen” and “the Black hand,” I am extremely grateful to be doing work through the Farm Alliance that uplifts both institutional means of sovereignty (policy work) as well as self/community-led means of sovereignty (the revolutionary act of growing food).


At this week’s Bites of Baltimore session, one activity called for everyone to describe their first internship week in one word. I immediately thought of the word “relaxing” when thinking about my time at Joy Wellness so far. As an integrative healthcare center, Joy Wellness hosts several programs open to the community, including nutrition education, yoga, Qi Gong, meditation, and gardening. While part of my role as an intern is to assist with outreach and set-up for these programs, I also get to take part in them! On Wednesday morning, I was doing Sun Salutations during Chair Yoga alongside the instructor and two women of the community. That afternoon, I met the garden keeper who talked to me about her work and her plans for the Joy Wellness garden. And on Thursday, I was introduced to the world of meditation in a Yoga Nidra practice over Zoom. At the end of each day, I was so inspired by how effective and spirit-lifting these programs were. It’s clear the community members know this too, as I hear the excitement over the phone when I tell them their favorite classes are back in-person. It was also so nice to see that some of those I had called to remind about upcoming classes had come to participate!

However, not all classes had much attendance, especially as we enter this new “post-pandemic” period, creating confusion as to what is being held in-person vs. virtually. This brings me to another word I would use to describe my first week experience: “enlightening”. As I have conversations with some of the patients as well as the Joy Wellness Program Coordinator, Allison, I become more aware of some barriers that may exist that prevent people from attending some of the programs. I had several people tell me that they couldn’t attend Chair Yoga or Gardening Club because they are still recovering from past surgeries or other medical treatments that have limited their mobility. Some people don’t have access to a smart-phone or laptop to join the virtual programming. Other community members have difficulty finding transportation to the clinic. Although the Joy Wellness programming is made very accessible to the community with these issues in mind, it is still important to reflect on these barriers as they are big contributors to disparities in healthcare accessibility in Baltimore City and beyond.


This week, I had many conversations about community engagement, organization, and food access but one particular conversation stuck out to me. We were harvesting and having a conversation about Juneteenth. Ms. Kim made it public news about the Hopkins observance of Juneteenth on Friday in our Whitelock group chat, so we were talking about the holiday. It’s really frustrating to see Juneteenth be recognized as a federal holiday, without any of the additional needed steps being addressed at the systemic level. We were talking about housing and environmental injustices with food access, and also the education system infrastructure in the city. There’s an elementary school right down the road from Whitelock, and I’m not sure if she was talking about that specific school, but we talked about how the air/heat systems don’t work, how there are not enough supplies for everyone sometimes, the pressure on teachers. We also talked about how critical race theory education is often banned in a lot of states/ schools! Students need to learn about the history of Juneteenth and more beyond that, but it’s difficult when that material is not allowed to be taught.

There were other issues brought up also about big institutions- Hopkins- trying to buy land off of people and gentrification that Hopkins spurred in East Baltimore. Raven, an apprentice at the farm, mentioned how communities, especially Black neighborhoods and communities in Baltimore, cannot be so easily bought out by these institutions and not just accept the cheapest or first offer that they might offer to take that land or their home from them. Her landlord, she mentioned, held onto the building she lives in since the 70s, so it’s gone through several periods of economic prosperity but also degradation from the war on “drugs”, economic recessions, and flight to other parts of the area, and how Black folks need to do the same. Land and property ownership could be one solution to these injustices, both at the individual and community level because then it’s more difficult to take it away from folks. This conversation was sprouted throughout the week in a few ways, and clearly touched on various social issues but they are all connected and need to be eliminated, as well as their root issues such as racism, classism, poverty, etc.


This week I started my first project which was a literature review project on the best practices for equity and community engagement around urban agriculture. I got to read reports on urban agriculture and summarize some key findings. I’m really excited to keep reading and learning about the topic and to start gathering and synthesizing some key practices regarding engaging community members in urban agriculture projects. I’ve learned a lot about different types of urban agriculture, such as urban farms, gardens, home gardens, rooftop gardens, aquaculture, aquaponics, and others. I have also learned that land ownership and food sovereignty are crucial to a lot of communities and the way they approach urban agriculture. Something else that has stood out to me this week is the weight of words. In discussing food access issues, many prefer to use the language food apartheid as opposed to food desert because the former better recognizes the racist policies that have shaped areas and led to limited access to healthy food. It gives vital historical and systemic context to food access issues. This reminds of a presentation during orientation about how thoughts inform language, and language informs our actions. This week I’ve really enjoyed meeting with my supervisor and getting to know the other people that work at the Baltimore Office of Sustainability. I’m excited to continue to build those relationships and continue working on my projects the rest of the summer.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,