Baltimore retiree starts urban farm, works to fix food deserts
By Lisa Robinson
Cherry Hill, many neighborhoods have no healthy food options, grocery stores
UPDATED 7:11 AM EDT Jul 18, 2014
BALTIMORE —Many people take for granted that they can drive down the street to the nearest grocery store. In some Baltimore neighborhoods known as food deserts, that's just not possible.
In the heart of south Baltimore's impoverished Cherry Hill neighborhood, nature's bounty blossoms thanks to 72-year-old Jaunita Ewell.
"When we started, it was a garbage-filled field and it took a year to clear," Ewell told 11 News reporter Lisa Robinson.
The 1.5 acres of land that belongs to the Baltimore Housing Authority is now one of 13 urban farms in the city that grows food for the community and sells it at its neighborhood farm stand, as well as at the Waverly farmers market.
With the help of a handful of volunteers like Garrett Bent, Ewell farms the land and fills it with everything from beets and collards to lettuce that started the season.
"I'm the one who does the heavy lifting, but she's still right there," Bent said. "Miss Juanita, she's a crusader. She's a home gardener. She retired and stepped up her game and opened this community garden."
Ewell said the reason she's doing it is simple: it's an absolute necessity.
"We're growing food here to encourage people to eat veggies, to be healthier and to save time and money by not having to leave the community to shop," Ewell said.
Cherry Hill is a food desert, and so are all the other red areas on a map released by Baltimore City (click here to see it). A food desert is an area where a supermarket is more than a quarter-mile away, the median household income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, more than 40 percent of households don't have cars and healthy food options aren't easy to find.
Cherry Hill resident Marilyn Hill either takes the bus to Lexington Market or she relies on the nearby Family Dollar store, where she can only get boxed and canned goods and a few staples.
"It's just not fair. We're the only ones. We might as well say we don't have a grocery store. You can't really call that a grocery store," Hill said of the Family Dollar.
There are six nearby corner stores carrying fatty foods and snacks, too, although one carried some frozen vegetable choices and onions, Robinson reported. Fast food is readily available, from fried chicken to Chinese food, hamburgers and more.
According to the Baltimore City Health Department, the No. 1 cause of death in Cherry Hill is heart disease.
Ewell wants to change that.
"I'm trying to change the mindset of people, to get them to want to eat healthy food. A lot of young people are so used to eating fast foods and having food immediately available to them that they'd rather go to the store and buy it ready-made," Ewell said.
"Ewell is trying to grow a culture of people who've never farmed, never grown food and have never eaten veggies before. To start to do that, that is a cultural shift," said Holly Freishtat, of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.
Through the Farm Alliance, a sort of farm co-op, the farms share resources to help them collectively remain viable. It allows the farms to share a greenhouse to grow their seedlings and share a cooler to store their produce until it can be sold at the Waverly farmers market.
"These community farms grow a good amount of food, and they sell it in their communities. They also are able to make a profit at the farmers market and other ways," Freishtat said.
"When I look out here and see what we've done, I almost pop with pride," Ewell said.
Robinson said residents who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, are able to use those benefits at the Waverly farmers market. On Thursday, Baltimore City Councilman Pete Welch also introduced a proposal that offers tax credits for developers of urban agricultural property.
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