In the city of Freddie Gray and The Wire, Black farmers and vegans are fighting food apartheid and climate change.
On a recent day in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill suburb, within the enclosure of a tall chain-link fence that guards a grassy meadow surrounded by churches, schools, and apartment complexes, Eric Jackson reaches into a garden plot the size of a tennis court, lush with collard greens and dinosaur kale, to pick a green leaf of medicinal mugwort.
“It’s good for your joints,” he says of the leaf. A Cherry Hill native, Jackson (pictured above) is a social worker, community organizer, and, officially, “servant-director” of the Black Yield Institute, where he co-produced the documentary Baltimore’s Strange Fruit, the story of post-Reconstruction lynching, redlining, and land consolidation by white farmers conspiring to estrange Black sharecroppers and their descendants from the soil.
The Cherry Hill Urban Garden where Jackson is working, sits on one of several undeveloped acres near the neighborhood center. It’s the former home of Cherry Hill Homes, one of the nation’s biggest public housing projects; at its peak, it tallied 1,700 apartments. The neighborhood was founded as the nation’s first “Negro Suburb,” developed in the 1940s to house Southern Blacks who were migrating for World War II factory jobs. It’s now home to some 8,000 Black residents, who still make up 90 percent of its population.
Ringed by metalworks shops, paper mills, plastic plants, shipping, trucking, and bus yards—and even one of the city’s eight trash transfer stations—Cherry Hill still faces industrial pollution and flooding and lacks basic amenities like a supermarket with a produce section.
Over the past century, the Jim Crow era approach to land appropriation, the Great Migration to cities, and deep-seated shame about their people’s plantation past have all contributed to the radical decline of Black farmers. The overall number has dropped from 14 percent at the turn of the last century to just 2 percent today. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that Black Americans are more likely than others to eat fast food on any given day and to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and a host of other diet-related illnesses.
“It’s just a culture of economics that got not only African Americans but other people into eating on the run,” says 70-year-old Warren Blue, Baltimore’s longest-tenured urban farmer, as he peels the dried outer layers of stalk from freshly harvested garlic bulbs. “We have gotten away from so much that nature has afforded us.”
Black Americans however, are finding their way back to the land, even in a dense urban neighborhood like Cherry Hill. From the freight-shipping communities of South Baltimore to the leafy northern suburbs to Freddie Gray’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood on the west side, Jackson and Blue are just two of many cultivators working across the city’s 92 square miles to re-root their fellow Black Baltimoreans in the land. They are also increasingly collaborating with chefs, nutritionists, and food-access activists to encourage plant-based eating.
A couple of blocks from the site of D’Angelo Barksdale’s “pit” in HBO’s The Wire, for example, The Land of Kush serves up black-eyed-pea fritters and pork-free collards. It’s headquarters for Baltimore’s multiple vegan restaurant weeks and for the Black Vegetarian Society of Maryland, which boasts an email and social-media reach of 4,000 people. It’s also home to the annual Vegan SoulFest, which draws more than 10,000 people from across the nation, mostly African Americans, and has seen a seven-fold increase since it began in 2014.
You can be in line at The GruB Factory, another vegan café certified by Baltimore’s Pan-African Liberation Movement, and meet Marvin Hayes, a 46-year-old Sandtown-Winchester resident who teaches composting to kids and who fought off a proposed trash incinerator in Curtis Bay, south of Cherry Hill, amid already-poor air quality. You can go on a tour of Hayes’ soil-making facility at Filbert Street Community Garden and meet curious farmers who have come here on learning trips from other parts of the city. And you might find a Black Millennial pruning tomato leaves at Whitelock Community Farm, wearing a t-shirt from SoulFest, a co-sponsor of the Afro-Vegan Society, a clearinghouse for finding Black-owned vegan restaurants all over the U.S.
Urban farmers aim to animate dormant land and feed people in food deserts—or areas where Jackson, 33, says residents suffer from “food apartheid.” But they also recognize that providing fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables will nourish Baltimore’s burgeoning vegan and vegetarian movements, addressing racialized health disparities while showing the possibilities for a climate-friendly food system. As the livestock industry contributes an estimated 14.5 percent of global greenhouse emissions, Baltimore’s plant-based food-justice movement is also on the frontlines of grassroots climate intervention.
“The only thing I got to say is, the young folks got to save us,” says Warren Blue’s wife, Lavette, 64. “You’re the next generation, the only one that can kind of understand and see what’s happening.”
Staring Down Baltimore’s Human and Environmental Health Challenges
Jackson’s story begins with his grandmother, Edith Mae Louise Briscoe, who grew her own vegetables in a Cherry Hill Homes courtyard. Still, in a neighborhood of corner-store snack foods and fried-chicken carry-out, she lost a leg to diabetes and lived to meet Cherry Hill’s average life-expectancy: 69 years old, which is four years lower than Baltimore’s as a whole and a decade below the national average.
Jackson’s family doesn’t know whether the diabetes was genetic or brought on by a steady diet of sweet tea and biscuits. But, in Cherry Hill, as with the nation at large, Black Americans are twice as likely to die of the disease than their white counterparts. Likewise, cancer and heart disease are 50 percent more likely to be what kills you in Baltimore as anywhere else in the nation.
It’s not just human health that suffers; the sickness of the planet manifests in Cherry Hill, too. Public-housing tenants complain of flooding and mold growth amidst an increasing number of hurricanes and tropical storms over the past two decades. Maryland’s coastal waters have risen a foot since the Industrial Revolution, and the Chesapeake Bay set a record during Hurricane Isabel in 2003, surging seven feet above the benchmark sea level at that time.
Without huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the latest five-year report from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science predicts the state’s shoreline will recede another two feet, and possibly as much as seven feet, by 2100, flooding Baltimore not just during storms but daily.
“It’s a changing weather pattern, believe me,” says Lavette Blue, who retired from her job with the state unemployment office to start farming full-time in 2011. She and her husband Warren have worked their little farm, The Greener Garden, in their own suburban yard and their neighbors’ yards, for more than 30 years. They sell greens, garlic, and more at the city’s farmers’ markets, both on their own and through the Farm Alliance of Baltimore.
Many of their crops are in hoop houses, and while 2018’s Hurricane Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Maryland, it still marked Baltimore’s wettest year on record. Nearly 72 inches of rain drowning everything the Blues had planted outside. “If you talk to some of the farmers, they’ll tell you,” Lavette says. “Are we just going to be Waterworld?”
Harvesting from more than an acre of earth northeast of Morgan State University, she and Warren have eaten meat-free for two and a half decades. “I feel like I’m at least helping the earth kind of recover, helping the people to eat better, learn how to eat differently than what they’re used to,” she says, “and to show them that they don’t have to eat fast food.”
Teaching the Simplicity of Healthy Cooking
About six miles to the southwest, in the gentrifying Hampden neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University, Chef Crystal Forman, 42, cuts bunches of Cherry Hill’s dark, leathery dino kale into tiny strips. She’s in a concrete warehouse, with a ceiling of unfinished sheetrock, Sharpie anime on the walls, well-worn couches, and mismatched chairs.
This is the Baltimore Free Farm, not so much a farm as a self-described “egalitarian collective,” supporting the small Ash Street Community Garden and a kitchen used by the Food Not Bombs meal service and Food Rescue Baltimore, the program that brought Forman here.
About 30 people line up outside the concrete-block building across from the garden, then wind their way through dimly lit halls to wait for boxes of fruits and vegetables rescued from a local organic grocer and a supermarket distributor. Forman’s job is to teach people how to prepare healthy, vegan meals with what they’ve got—in this case, free bread and fruits and vegetables that would have otherwise gone to a landfill. Food waste contributes 8 percent of global greenhouse gases; between diverting waste and boosting vegetarian diets, Food Rescue Baltimore exists to shrink the city’s carbon footprint ever so slightly and improve people’s health at the same time.
Working behind a folding table, Forman tells the crowd the kale is full of vitamins A, C, and K, which means that it nourishes the brain, eyes, bones, blood, and immune system, and can even fight cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure. She’ll eventually top the salad with nutritional yeast for the nutty flavor and the extra B12 and potassium.
“What type of fruit would be complementary to kale?” asks 28-year-old Brittany Dulin. She’s been looking for recipes to help her mom eat better after chest pains sent her to the hospital and doctors found a partially clogged artery.
Forman pulls out a bag of dried cranberries to add to the salad. She dices organic Fuji apples from the rescue and tells Dulin that avocados, blueberries, or oranges could all work, too. Her recipe includes sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and is topped with a vinaigrette made with balsamic vinegar, fresh garlic, agave syrup, basil, oregano, black pepper, and pink Himalayan salt.
“It’s always good to add an acid,” she says, pouring her concoction over the leafy greens, “to break down the cell walls of the kale.”
Forman runs these food demonstrations several times a month, all over the city. The local Abell Foundation funds her work through the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, whose 17 members constitute about half the number of urban farms in the city, supported by about 20 farmers’ markets and supplemented by more than 100 community gardens. She teaches cooking at the markets, at community centers, and at two of nine Food Rescue distribution sites. She’s also on the board of directors for the Black Vegetarian Society.
On the previous weekend, Forman presented at the Society’s “Keep It Fresh” vegan youth festival at West Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, teaching kids how to make her “tuna-less” salad out of chickpeas. She leads monthly workshops at subsidized apartment towers including Monument East or City View at McCulloh.
Over the past two years, using Forman’s recipes, McCulloh resident and Navy veteran Yusuf Hadith, 72, says he’s lost 30 pounds, stopped taking pain meds for arthritic knees and a degenerative disc, and ditched his wheelchair for a cane. Hadith says he often starts preparing Forman’s peanut or pumpkin soups at 6 p.m. and is eating dinner by 6:30.
“The other day she taught us to mix kale and collard greens as a salad,” he says. “The history with African Americans is that you cook that vegetable. As simple as that idea is, it just never occurs to us that it can be a salad. My generation, we complicated things, and we forgot the simplicity of cooking,” he says. “We made a hell of a mess of things. We taught our children speed, convenience, and hopelessness.”
A Co-op Market on The Way
According to a Johns Hopkins study, about a quarter of Baltimore’s residents live in “Healthy Food Priority Areas,” which are defined as being more than a five-minute walk from a supermarket. In these neighborhoods—which cover much of the predominantly Black east and west sides—quick, convenient food comes in the form of the “Baltimore chicken box” of breaded wings and fries, sold at corner carry-outs. Cherry Hill has several of them within a one-mile radius, while the nearest supermarket that sells fresh produce is a Walmart Supercenter two miles away.
Jackson’s Black Yield Institute, along with the Cherry Hill Development Corporation, is working to open a co-op market to provide healthy food from Black-owned farms, and to craft a cookbook with recipes from residents of the Cherry Hill Senior Manor, across the street from the garden. The cookbook will have two versions of each recipe: The classic dishes, full of salt, animal fat, and sugar, plus healthier alternatives—his wife’s vegan take on his grandmother’s biscuits, for instance.
Like other food-justice advocates across the city, Jackson and his collaborators recognize both the damage to health and to the earth that industrialized food has wrought and also the deep roots of healing embedded within African Americans’ own painful history. Enslaved Africans were the ones who crossed the Atlantic with what are now soul-food staples like okra and black-eyed peas; some say the New World didn’t have watermelon before they came, and they even brought coffee to the Americas from Ethiopia through the European slave trade.
“Not only do we not have a relationship with the land; we don’t have a relationship with food,” Jackson says, kneeling to pull weeds from land where sections of the Cherry Hill Homes project were demolished 20 years ago. But Jackson says he and his neighbors are rekindling those connections, “on the shoulders of ancestors, literally.”