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Jacques Kelly: City Seeds sprouts an opportunity in East Baltimore

Railroad passengers passing through East Baltimore might notice the bold colors of the fruits and vegetables painted on a busy little kitchen named City Seeds.

Vans filled with lunches depart from this North Wolfe Street industrial outpost. They carry grab-and-go foods prepared in a commissary that stands alongside the busy Amtrak and MARC train embankment. The motto of the enterprise: “Made with love in Baltimore.”

On a recent morning City Seeds’ 30 or so workers were slicing cantaloupe and strawberries for salads, but it was the scent of baking chocolate chip cookies that filled the room. Trays of bagels were going out that day as well.

City Seeds bills itself as a social enterprise, and is one of a handful of new businesses that have arrived at this largely abandoned business corridor along Gay and Wolfe streets north of the Johns Hopkins East Baltimore medical campus. The neighborhood’s dominant landmark is the American Brewery building, which for the past decade has housed City Seeds’ parent organization, the not-for-profit Humanim.

While there are plenty of empty, deteriorating buildings nearby, City Seeds is not located in one of them. Renovating an old 1890s factory would have been too expensive. Instead, working with a community-based Historic East Baltimore Action Coalition, Humanim constructed a new 8,500-square-foot, metal-sided structure in an old Department of Public Works yard.

“Being in this square tin can really works,” said Deborah Haust, who heads culinary social enterprises for Humanim.

The organization has a mission statement espousing “strategic risk taking and a proactive approach” to help employees attain economic opportunity and self-empowerment.

“As a social enterprise, people come to us and say, ‘Your product ought to be the cheapest,’ but that is not the way it works,” Haust said. “We pay competitive wages and benefits. Also, we are not the cheapest. The quality of our foods doesn’t let us be the cheapest.”

So who buys from City Seeds? The enterprise has secured contracts from both the medical and Homewood campuses of the Johns Hopkins University. The Maryland Institute College of Art and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Exelon, the Walters Art Museum and T. Rowe Price Group are also customers.

Everyman Theater buys City Seeds’ bistro-box, a package of snacks geared to playgoers’ appetites.

“We work hard to assure our quality and service,” Haust added. “When we try to get a new customer, we don’t go in by stating our mission first. We go in with the business first.”

There is also a second enterprise here: School of Food, which offers public cooking classes.

Haust noted that the City Seeds kitchen tries to offer healthy food options, with many items linked to local growers. The basil for pesto the kitchen prepares is grown on a raised bed on the property.

“Everything we do has a respect for the environment,” she said. “We work with local farms.”

City Seeds has already become an employment resource in the community. Haust said 65 percent of her workers have factors that would often be a barrier to employment.

“That barrier may be they live in a disadvantaged ZIP code area, or they have a criminal background, a mental health issue or a disability,” Haust said.

She and her staff work to identify the right job for the right person. Some are natural cooks and food preparers. Others have outgoing personalities that will make them suited to managing a cafeteria or lunchroom.

“We want to make sure our employees are in the best place for their goals set,” she said.

City Seeds is succeeding, garnering $1.9 million in sales over the past year, Haust said. As more institutions sign contracts for food service and catering, she hopes to eliminate the charitable grant funding that currently assists its mission.

For an organization that aims to help others with self-sufficiency, that’s an important benchmark.

“To be really successful,” Haust said, “we need to stand on our own two feet.”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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