As other shoppers scoured store aisles for rolls of toilet paper in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Janssen Evelyn was searching for tomato seedlings.
Every year around April, Evelyn stocks up on plants and gardening supplies for the upcoming growing season. But when he went to the nursery last year near his home in Columbia, the shelves were a lot emptier than usual.
Evelyn said he felt “a little possessive” at first. But that feeling gave way to excitement with seeing more people taking up gardening as a hobby, especially as the pandemic has disrupted traditional food resource channels and exacerbated food insecurity across the country.
As growing season arrives again, community garden plots are in high demand throughout the Baltimore region, ready to fill a pressing need in some of the city’s food deserts, where hunger is common. The gardens also serve as valuable open spaces and learning environments.
The national hunger-relief organization Feeding America estimates that about 45 million people in the United States experienced food insecurity in 2020.
Feeding America’s projections for this year are down slightly from last year, with the group estimating that 42 million people will be food insecure in 2021. But the estimated number of food insecure people remains higher than pre-pandemic levels, with more than 35 million people having been food insecure in 2019 — the lowest point in more than 20 years.
Feeding America also projects that food insecurity will impact Black people at nearly double the rate as white people, with the organization estimating that 21% of Black people may be food insecure in 2021 compared to 11% of white people.
Access to fresh vegetables
The ability to access and afford fresh food has been further hampered during the pandemic as unemployment rates skyrocketed. But community gardens could help bridge that gap, said Colin Lyman, a member of the Oliver Community Farm in East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood.
“Even before the pandemic, it was saving people who are in food insecure neighborhoods, who live nearby,” Lyman said. “They can get fresh greens, fresh produce, from their backyard or near their house and they don’t have to make trips to grocery stores for certain items.”
Lyman said “options are pretty limited” to get fresh produce at stores in and around Oliver, but the community farm is able to provide food to those in need.
Members of The 6th Branch nonprofit, which works with the Oliver Community Farm and other Baltimore green spaces, and community volunteers recently began planting some of this year’s crops in the farm’s hoop house and raised garden beds, including hot peppers, sweet peppers, cherry tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, eggplant, kale, collards and mustard greens, Lyman said.
As crops are ready to be harvested, the farmers will pack coolers full of produce to deliver to the Franciscan Center on Wednesdays and the Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment (BRACE) on Fridays.
Last year, the Oliver Community Farm distributed about 2,500 pounds of produce to those two organizations combined. At the height of the summer, the farm distributed as many as about 200 pounds per week, Lyman said.
Community members can also come pick crops themselves, even if no farm member is present, Lyman said.
“The only rule we say is please only take as much as you need. But what you need is up for the person to determine,” he said.
Two plots are better than one
In South Baltimore, the Filbert Street Community Garden has helped feed residents of the Curtis Bay neighborhood.
The garden was founded about 10 years ago by Open Society Institute (OSI) fellow Jason Reed, who later passed the reins to current garden manager Rodette Jones.
Jones said Curtis Bay is a food desert with few nearby stores that sell fresh produce, but the garden on Filbert Street is a source for fresh fruits, vegetables and even eggs and honey.
“We figured that if people had fresh fruits and vegetables that they can grow where it’s close and they can eat the stuff that they grow, it’s a win-win situation and improves their overall health conditions,” she said.
People can rent their own plot or volunteer to work in the communal garden, which grows produce to distribute to community members or sell at farm stands and reinvest the profits back into the garden. In 2020, the garden distributed nearly 1,000 pounds of produce and about 1,500 dozen eggs to community members, Jones said.
Jones estimates that half of the garden’s approximately 30 plots were rented out last year. On a recent weekend, the garden assigned all but about five of its plots for this year.
“This year, we got a lot of new people that came and got engaged. And some of the people last year who had one plot, they bumped it up to two plots because I think they felt the food disparity. Or they said ‘I better get two’ because it’s better to have more than enough than not to have enough,” Jones said.
Jones believes people’s desire to be more self-sustainable has fueled the growing interest in gardening.
“A lot of times going into grocery stores in the pandemic, the shelves were bare. So if they had grown their own vegetables and stuff, they would have had it,” she said.
Evelyn said he, too, has seen interest grow at the three community gardens he is a part of in Howard County: two gardens managed by the NAACP’s Howard County branch and the New Hope Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which each grow food to distribute to community members; and the Columbia West Side Garden, where his family has a plot of their own.
In partnership with the nonprofit Columbia Community Care, the church hosts a food pantry stocked with produce from their Garden of Hope in Fulton and items collected by the nonprofit.
Meanwhile, the Howard County NAACP’s George Washington Carver Growing Food Together CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) garden at the Community Ecological Institute in Columbia allows people to buy a share to receive food throughout the year, or help farm the land and receive produce in return through a “sweat equity” model.
“You come, you learn, you take,” Evelyn said.
The garden is named after George Washington Carver, the Black scientist and inventor who developed hundreds of products derived from peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans. Carver also revolutionized the agricultural industry with new farming practices, such as using certain plants to revitalize soil that had been drained of nutrients by the overproduction of cotton.
In addition to feeding people who are experiencing hunger, Evelyn said community gardens allow people to fill another need they have been deprived of during the pandemic: social interaction.
“Humans have been able to survive because we live in communities,” he said. “It’s deeply encoded in our genetic makeup, not just for survival but for living.”
After Evelyn’s mother passed away in February 2020, the family’s plot at the Columbia West Side Garden served as a space for them to come together during that difficult time while physically distanced and safer outdoors. And through the act of gardening, Evelyn said he has been able to find some peace and relief.
“In the midst of pain and trauma, we have to be purposeful in finding joy and leaning into those places. And the garden has been one of those places for me,” he said.
Beauty now that previously wasn’t there
Lyman said Oliver residents have been “highly supportive” of the community farm, which in 2013 transformed a vacant lot and frequent spot for illegal dumping into a place with purpose.
“The objective of the farm was to turn a previously unoccupied space into something usable. So a lot of people have expressed pre-pandemic that it’s very nice to look out their back door and see stuff growing … There’s now beauty there that previously wasn’t there,” he said.
Beyond the farm’s visual appeal, Lyman said community members have appreciated the food that it provides. He remembers dropping off produce for a woman on Fridays, which she used to cook meals for her family over the weekend.
“She was always looking forward to the greens we gave them because they would become Sunday dinner,” he said.
Jones said she has heard similar stories from the people fed by the Filbert Street Community Garden, including a mother of four who reached out via the Nextdoor app.
“I assured her that we had food for her and her kids,” Jones said. “Knowing that she could reach out to the community and ask and receive it, she was so happy that she got food for her family.”
For many people living in urban areas, green spaces are scarce, Evelyn said.
Originally from Barbados, Evelyn spent his early childhood visiting his grandmother’s one-acre garden on the Caribbean island, where she grew produce to sell to grocery stores.
When Evelyn was 7 years old, his family moved to the United States and lived in multi-family houses and apartments. He said he missed being able to farm the land, and that desire “flooded back” when he became a property owner himself as an adult.
Jones said the Filbert Street Community Garden is a “safe haven” for many community members, particularly children.
“They don’t have to worry about the trauma and stuff they have dealing with city life,” she said.
Jones said many residents cannot afford to visit the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, which charges $18 per child ages 2-11. But the Filbert Street Community Garden allows community members to see and interact with animals, including chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats, sheep and 23 beehives.
“They can actually come here and experience farm life without leaving their neighborhood and without even paying to see it,” she said.
The garden works with Curtis Bay Elementary School, Franklin High School and the Curtis Bay Recreation Center to teach youth about food and agriculture, including growing crops, taking care of animals, and cooking meals.
“A lot of kids don’t realize where the food comes from,” Jones said. “A lot of people think that they just pop up on a shelf, especially little kids.”
The younger kids learn things such as examining how a plant’s color can be an indicator of ripeness, and how the taste of bell peppers varies among different colors. For the older kids, lessons range from beekeeping to turning soil.
Jones said she enjoys teaching the younger generation about gardening.
“It starts young,” she said. “It’s rewarding that you don’t keep all the knowledge to yourself, that you pass it around.”
Evelyn also helps run the New Hope Seventh-Day Adventists Church’s faith-based scouting program to educate and inspire the next generation of gardeners and environmentalists.
“While we’re gardening with respect to the community, our bigger purpose with the garden is to plant seeds in people,” he said.
Evelyn added that while community gardens serve as a source of food, they have so much more to offer.
“We’re not just feeding in terms of physical substance, but also feeding people’s souls, feeding their minds, feeding them emotionally,” he said.