The Chesapeake region is filled with natural beauty but decades of environmental inequality has led to great disparities in multiple parts of the watershed. Various lower-income, urban communities—which predominantly include Black residents and other people of color—are faced with a lack of access to healthy, affordable food, green spaces and opportunities for leadership within the food industry and environmental movement.
Urban farmers have stepped up to the challenge to bring nature and food sovereignty into their communities. These farms are meeting the immediate need of access to healthy food and green spaces in the city, while providing a wide range of programming to create long-term community change through youth education and job training. Beyond the benefits that comes from nutritious food, urban farms also provide community members with the many health benefits of nature.
These farms also help bring long-term environmental sustainability into neighborhoods. In many cases, the farm owners are transforming vacant lots into vibrant green spaces, which reduces the impact of stormwater runoff and creates important habitat for pollinators and birds. These spaces are also often managed using organic growing techniques, offer community composting and use sustainable practices like cover cropping. Most importantly, these farms are led by people from the community they serve.
Dreaming Out Loud
In 2008, Chris Bradshaw founded Dreaming Out Loud, an organization which, according to their website, is designed to “create economic opportunities for the D.C. metro region’s marginalized communities through building a healthy, equitable food system.”
Bradshaw spent years building small urban farms throughout Washington D.C., increasing food access and education wherever possible. He even had a farm at the popular Blind Whino Arts Club.
In 2018, Dreaming Out Loud was able to expand its operation and open the Farm & Food Hub at Kelly Miller. The two-acre, Black-owned farm is located in Ward 7 of Washington D.C., an area where the average family income is barely above the national standard poverty line. The farm provides educational programming through a robust partnership with City Blossoms, Loop Closing, Kelly Miller Middle School, D.C. Parks & Recreation and DC Central Kitchen.
The farm grows a wide variety of crops that are served to Kelly Miller Middle School students and have helped build and implement a culinary curriculum for students. The farm hub works with Black-owned farms throughout the region and sells wholesale produce to local cafes and restaurants. By providing food to young students, providing green space to residents and employing and working to scale regional agriculture initiatives led by Black farmers, Dreaming Out Loud is working to build an equitable food system at every level.
The Farm & Food Hub has become so well known that it was the first official trip for second gentleman Doug Emhoff during Kamala Harris’ first days in office.
Duron Chavis, founder of McDonough Community Garden in Richmond, Virginia, has a long history of community activism in the Commonwealth. He founded a festival celebrating African culture and holistic health, created a pop-up farmers market and now works as the Manager of Community Engagement for Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. In 2012, Chavis started McDonough Community Garden, transforming an 8,500 square foot lot into a 30 bed garden with fruit trees and pollinator gardens.
McDonough Community Garden not only promotes urban agriculture, but horticultural therapy and environmental stewardship as well. As is often the case in urban environments, especially Black neighborhoods that are more likely to be surrounded by toxic manufacturing facilities, the farm in Richmond had a high level of lead in the soil. The team at McDonough Community Garden worked around this issue by building raised beds with a barrier to keep food safe for consumption.
The garden is building stronger community ties with events throughout the year including an early spring seed swap, garden work party days and educational workshops. McDonough serves as a little green oasis with seating areas for residents to enjoy the outdoors. Chavis hopes that the increased green space will also help raise home values in the neighborhood.
Whitelock Community Farm
Viewing food access and community education as inseparable, Whitelock Community Farm was founded in 2010 in Baltimore, Maryland to address both issues. The farm cultivates over 30 varieties of vegetables to sell at their farm stand and local farmers markets, while accepting a wide variety of payment types to ensure the food is accessible to everyone. This same dedication to access inspired a bike-powered mobile market that travels in and around the neighborhood to deliver fresh produce. On the education side, the farm hosts one-off classes focused on topics such as soil health and cooking demonstrations. A year-round partnership with the Dorothy I. Heights Elementary School allows students to see the progression of the garden throughout multiple growing seasons and even get the opportunity to harvest vegetables they planted in the spring. Whitelock also works with Midtown Academy’s Green Team program to help students complete unique farm projects. These workshops in combination with events such as potlucks, volunteer days and harvest festivals help to build community and expand the farm’s reach.
Strength to Love II
This 1.5-acre plot in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland was transformed into an organic farm. Investing in hoop houses, a structure similar to a greenhouse without the heating a cooling mechanisms, allows the farm to grow crops year-round.. In 2013, Strength to Love II Farm was founded to provide job opportunities, specifically for those returning from recent incarcerations, and to increase food access in a neighborhood with very limited healthy and affordable options. The farm consists of 18 150-foot long high tunnels using organic growing techniques. A common issue for urban farms is a fear of investing in infrastructure when they don’t know how long the lease will be available. Strength to Love II was the first farm to receive an extended five-year lease from the Homegrown Baltimore Land Leasing Initiative, which was created to provide long-term leases encouraging urban agriculture.
Strength to Love II grows a wide variety of leafy greens to sell at local farmers markets, restaurants and colleges. As part of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, they also grow several staple crops including okra, peppers, cucumbers and root vegetables. Strength to Love II also provides its employees with tools to overcome different professional and lifestyle challenges they face in their communities, including workforce development training, identification assistance, housing referrals and substance abuse referrals.
Harrisburg Urban Growers
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania didn’t necessarily need a new urban garden but it did need a way to encourage city residents to green their backyards through plants and gardens. This is the goal of the Harrisburg Urban Growers program, an initiative of the Tri-County Community Action Agency. Building upon the 14 existing urban gardens in and around Harrisburg, the program encourages people to join by giving out free seed and plant kits. These kits are designed as an introduction to gardening and can be used in people’s backyards and the existing community gardens. The group also has a Facebook page to encourage residents to share information and resources.
These are just a few of the organizations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that are working to increase access to food, provide job opportunities and green our neighborhoods through urban agriculture. This equitable and healthy use of the land will also reduce pollution coming from cities and draining into the Chesapeake Bay. Do you have a favorite urban farm in your neighborhood? Tell us about it in the comments!