How some social activists are solving Baltimore’s food desert problem

By Chelsea Seifert and Holly Wise

Good luck finding fresh produce in East or West Baltimore.

In neighborhoods classified as food deserts, residents have little to no access to healthy food, in part because there are no grocery stores within miles radius and because many people don’t have transportation, leaving them to rely on the prolific corner stores that carry mostly liquor and a lot of junk food.

There are people trying to change that, namely a white man with 12 dots tattooed on his face who drives a truck and picks up excess food from farmer’s markets and delivers it to neighborhoods in the food deserts.

His name is Arthur Morgan.

We met Arthur for the first time standing in one of his hoophouses on a vacant lot on Bond Street in a downpour. The lot used to hold condemned houses (“Drug houses, crack houses, everyone was sitting around shooting dope,” Morgan said), but beneath all that was fertile ground once the rats were evicted.

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Arthur Morgan saw an empty lot and decided to create a green space for the Oliver Community. Photo by Holly Wise/VoiceBox Media

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Arthur Morgan has erected a hoophouse and planted vegetables in an effort to create green space in what used to be a vacant lot. Photo by Holly Wise/VoiceBox Media

“Is this city property?” I asked.

“I don’t give a fuck,” Morgan said. “I care, but I really don’t. I’m not going to ask. I’ll file a piece of paper but I’m not going to wait six months or a year.”

In neighborhoods swirling in desperation and violence (five people were shot there the day before our visit), it seems its only rival is this exhibition of bulldogged activism.

Every Sunday Morgan sets up the farm stand in the field outside the hoophouse to give people a green gathering space. Some days 10 people will show up, other days 500, he said.

“This is just to help folks out, just to hang out,” Morgan said. “There’s already enough excess food everywhere. This is just to create some green space.”

{Listen to Arthur, but beware of the pounding rain against the greenhouse}

Four streets over, Morgan said he plans to install six additional hoophouses on Bethel Street.

This feels like his hobby, because his attention is set on bringing healthy food to communities that lack access to fresh produce.

In 2012 he was named an Open Society Institute-Baltimore fellow and was awarded $60,000 “to expand Gather Baltimore, a volunteer-based program that collects and gleans fresh produce donated by farmers markets and farms for distribution to people without a healthy food source in Baltimore through local hospitals, meal programs, and faith communities,” according to the organization’s website.

Morgan said he’s been doing this work forever, first inspired by seeing firsthand the amount of produce thrown away at farmers markets after the day’s sale.

“They don’t want to throw it back on the truck, haul it back to the farm and unload it and throw it away,” he said.

Initially he delivered the food to shelters and missions, but he said he doesn’t like that people have to stand in line for three hours for a plate of spaghetti. He wants people to have food in their refrigerator and in their home.

Through Gather Baltimore, Morgan picks up excess food from farm stands, farms, farmers markets and food distributors. The food is sorted into blue Ikea bags and people can pick up the bags for $6 at the Mill Valley General Store on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. (Morgan’s friend Karen Bovie told us that if people can’t pay $6, they’re given the bag of food anyway). Bags are also delivered to pick-up points where there enough people waiting to justify the trip.

{Listen to Arthur explain Gather Baltimore while standing on North Bethel Street in East Baltimore}

A few blocks over on the corner of East Biddle Street and North Patterson Park Avenue, the people at Dayspring Progam Inc. are finding solutions to the food desert problem in their community.

The organization, located in East Baltimore, provides a transitional facility for homeless women as well as other programs and support services to strengthen self-sufficiency in an area where employment is low, drug use is abundant and fresh food is almost nonexistent.

The building the behind the garden is the new facility where the mothers and their children are housed for the Dayspring program.

The building the behind the garden is the new facility where the mothers and their children are housed for the Dayspring program. Photo by Holly Wise/VoiceBox Media

Karen Bovie walking through the Dayspring Garden.

Karen Bovie walking through the Dayspring Garden. Photo by Holly Wise/VoiceBox Media

One of the most recent programs is the Dayspring Garden Project, whichbegan more than a year ago as a collaborative partnership between Dayspring and the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Baltimore.

Karen Bovie, co-chair of poverty and homelessness committee for the First Unitarian Universalist Church said by partnering with other organizations within the church the garden was able to become a possibility.

“There’s a wonderful playground for children out here but the women didn’t have a place of their own,” Bovie said. “We wanted it to feed their body and feed their emotions. It’s a place where eventually we want to have a place that’s peaceful, a place that’s calm because most of them don’t have a place like that in their lives.”

The garden is an ongoing project that started as a rubble site that fostered drug activity, said Bovie.

Now families are able to have fresh food in an area of Baltimore that is classified as a food desert. Peppers, tomatoes, arugula, lettuce and beets are just some of the vegetables that are grown.

But planting the garden isn’t enough. The women of Dayspring are required to take parenting classes that include how to plant the vegetables, maintain the garden and how to cook and eat healthy.

The garden located directly behind the facility, takes group effort as everyone at Dayspring had to learn all that a garden requires, said Clements. Bovie and Clements both hope the positivity that the garden brings to the community will soon ripple throughout the rest of East Baltimore.

{Listen to Sharon and Karen talk about the garden’s conception and how they maintain it}

There are many community garden efforts in neighborhoods, including Sandtown, but there is often a lack of communication from the people who begin the projects and the people they’re trying to serve.

One of the most difficult aspects of creating and establishing programs in the community Bovie said is the lack of communication and disconnect between organizations and community members alike.

{Sharon and Karen discuss how to start a community garden and ways to keep it sustainable}

Clements said residents of Baltimore could benefit from big projects that bring everyone together to decrease the feeling of isolation.

“A big gardening project would be good,” Clements said. “Every area that has a garden, maybe use that like Arbor Day to have one big activity or something where people can feel comfortable, where you know what’s going on and how you can benefit.”

The garden at Dayspring not only offers fresh produce to a community where that isn’t always available, but also a peaceful place where the women can regain hope, said Bovie.