Bridging the Food Gap with Community Farms and Education

| Rebekah Kates Lemke

This article was originally written by Rebekah Kates Lemke and published by Catholic Relief Services.

In southwest Tanzania, there are several villages in the mountains with no WiFi or electricity, multiple transportation challenges and a scarcity of water. But these villages are also home to farmers who are successfully producing food for their families and friends on neighborhood plots of land.

It’s those farmers Holly Budd traveled to meet. Holly, who is chairperson of the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association, visited Tanzania last year as a volunteer for Catholic Relief Services’ Farmer-to-Farmer program. Farmer-to-Farmer promotes sustainable economic growth, agricultural development and food security in communities in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia. During her visit, Holly helped farmers better organize as a group and to learn more about business contracts.  

“So we learned about what was in contracts and what would be important to them to have in a farming contract. I wanted them empowered to actually say, ‘I don’t want this. Cross it out and initial it.’”

But Holly says people in the United States can also learn from those overseas.

“They’re not dependent on anyone else because they’re producing it for themselves. Look at the people living in the states and in the city now.  If we have the apocalypse, many of us have nowhere to go for food except to raid the shelves at the 7-Eleven.  And once that’s gone, we’re done,” Holly says. “But over there, they have a lot of knowledge about how to grow their own food. They make their own bricks. They can build their own houses and they’re going to be chugging along the same way now and then, whereas we’re going to be falling apart.”

Places like Whitelock Community Farm in Baltimore are trying to bridge the food gap for those living in our nation’s cities. The farm began in 2010 when Reservoir Hill residents converted a vacant lot into an active urban farm with the help of hundreds of volunteers.

In an area where corner stores are the norm, supermarkets are scarce, and health problems are prevalent, the continued support of the community has given residents the ability to pursue sustainable fresh food sources. It’s a rainbow at Whitelock; greens of every shade and variety are plentiful, along with the purple of eggplants, the orange of carrots, and the red of peppers.

Isabel Antreasian is the program manager at the farm. Besides providing healthy food through a market stand and mobile market, the farm is also teaching. It hosts community events and is involved in multiple programs at the nearby elementary school, including farm clubs and harvesting opportunities. There are cooking classes for children and adults. The goal is to grab kids early and to show what good food can do for them.

"It's one thing to reach adults, but working with kids and families has been really important for us," Isabel says. “We are bridging the gap and explaining where food comes from, how it is grown and how things are getting to us.”

While it’s never too early for children to learn, it’s also never too late for adults to take an interest in farming. Adamaah Grayse is what is known as a beginner farmer. She has less than 10 years worth of experience in farming, but is very committed. She works for CRS’ Farmer-to-Farmer program as a digital librarian assistant, building a library of in-house resources for volunteers. Before she was an employee, she also traveled to Ethiopia as a volunteer to lend her expertise on vegetable production, pest management and composting. 

Adamaah says having young people interested and involved in farming is key, especially since our climate is changing.

“Farmers really do rely on the climate. And once the climate changes, that changes everything. We have to then recalibrate when things go in the ground, how to rotate crops and do pest management,” Adamaah says. “We have to watch whether it gets warm enough for your tomatoes to ripen or cool enough for lettuce to grow.”

Holly also sees changes happening, and sees farmers – and local farms like Whitelock – as part of the global solution.

“It’s important that we acknowledge climate change. And farmers can have a big impact on that. Farmers need to think about what they’re planting because as the climate changes, the crops that are going to thrive are going to be different,” Holly says. “My grandfather used to say, ‘Well, if you won’t listen, you’ve got to feel.’ And a lot of people are going to suffer if we can’t do something now versus waiting for it to smack us in the face.”

Holly says not using pesticides and organic farming are important steps everyone can take to make a difference.

“There’s ways that farming can sequester carbon that would be keeping it in the soil instead of going back out to the atmosphere,” she continues. “Every time you put compost on the soil instead of chemicals made from petroleum products, you’re helping to keep more carbon out of the air.”

Whitelock is doing its part.  The urban farm collects rainwater to use in irrigation.  It does not use pesticides and grows crops in greenhouses and hoop houses. In addition, the farm practices recycling and composting.

“We are learning from and connecting with other farmers.  We can talk to people about challenges,” Isabel says. “Urban agriculture is not only productive; we are building community. It’s a place for growth, and space to come to learn and share.”

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