The practice of urban agriculture is slowly taking off in Baltimore, a city otherwise known for its drug trade operations and violent crime. The city is now focusing on ambitious plans to boost workforce training and job opportunities in what some tout as "a promising new economic niche for the city's youth."
Launched in April of this year, the Virtual Supermarket project has made a commitment to providing healthy food in neighborhoods that lack proper grocery stores. Through a joint partnership with the city's health department, libraries, and the Santoni Supermarket, residents can order groceries at the library, paying with cash, credit or food stamps, and pick up their groceries the next day. The program hopes to utilize local farms, found on plots of city land as a source for grocery produce.
Helping with the efforts are two relatively new farms run as public/nonprofit partnerships. Great Kids Farm, a project of Baltimore City Public Schools, and Real Food Farm, a collaboraton between Civic Works and Safe Healing Foundation, are helping boost the urban-agriculture movement.
In addition to the work of local nonprofit partnerships, the Virtual Supermarket project is expected to receive support from Big City Farms, a company that provides small urban farmers with training, technological resources and contracts with larger customers. The hope is that these smaller farms get to connect with larger entities, such as the school district or Whole Foods, that would otherwise be too large to have on board.
Anne Palmer, a program director with Johns Hopkins University's Center for a Liveable Future said that the "One thing that makes the food work here unique is that from the beginning, the planning and health departments have played a significant role."
Director of Baltimore's Office of Sustainability Beth Strommen, acknowledges that most of Baltimore's 10,000 vacant lots are located in areas where residents would be allowed to grow and sell produce, once a proposed zoning code is adopted, expected sometime next year.
The goal is to identify several city-owned vacant lots well-suited to agriculture and put out a request for proposals this fall to turn them into farms. She met with half a dozen urban farmers this summer to get their input on what to look for in selecting the parcels, from lot size to hours of available sunlight.
Although the concept of farming in the city is new, as it is in many cities nationwide, it has been receiving positive feedback from nonprofit organizations and farmers alike. The hope is that the Virtual Supermarket project will expand and gather momentum as the word gets out, providing a longstanding solution to many of the city's current problems.