Baltimore County officials say new government-owned greenhouse will feed the hungry

A new greenhouse planned for the rolling hills of northern Baltimore County will be used to produce fresh vegetables for school cafeterias, homeless shelters and food banks.

County leaders gathered Thursday at the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park in Cockeysville for a groundbreaking for the greenhouse, which is expected to be built by next spring. Officials said the goal for the Produce for the People program is to yield 100,000 pounds of fresh vegetables initially — then at least 500,000 pounds annually by the third year.

The 4,600-square-foot greenhouse will cost $225,000, with funds coming from the county’s capital budget, and will be used to grow seedlings that will be transplanted in surrounding fields. The county’s Department of Recreation and Parks will coordinate the program, with volunteers doing the bulk of the farming.

More than 98,000 people in Baltimore County — about 12 percent of the population— are considered “food insecure,” according to Feeding America, a national network of food banks that includes the Maryland Food Bank. And more than 40 percent of those people earn too much money to qualify for food stamps and other nutrition assistance programs.

“Believe it or not, there are many people who work full time, and yet they struggle to put decent food on the table,” County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at the groundbreaking.

The program will start with 10 acres of corn, potatoes and green beans, Kamenetz said. Then, officials hope to add cabbage, corn, peppers, tomatoes and other crops.

The greenhouse will be used for volunteer and educational programs, open to groups such as the Baltimore County Master Gardeners, Future Harvest, and the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council.

Nonprofits have already approached the county about using the greenhouse for therapeutic gardening programs for people with disabilities, Kamenetz said.

The agricultural center on Shawan Road opened in 2010 on a 149-acre property at the corner of Shawan and Cuba roads. It hosts educational programs and promotes the agriculture industry.

Barry Williams, director of the county’s parks and recreation department, said he wants to see the greenhouse serve as “an incubator to nurture new farmers,” teaching schoolchildren where their food comes from.

“Many times, the kids just see it in the supermarkets,” Williams said.County leaders said their inspiration for the Produce for the People program came from First Fruits Farm, a volunteer-run Christian ministry that produces food for soup kitchens, shelters and food banks. Last year, the Freeland farm harvested more than 1.6 million pounds of food.

Rick Bernstein, who founded First Fruits with his wife, Carol, said he hopes to serve as a resource for the program by sharing their experience.

“We and others have had plenty of time to make mistakes,” said Bernstein, who also serves as president of the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council. Farming, he said, “is not as easy as it looks.”

Bernstein said he hopes the county’s project educates those interested in farming.

“I am very bullish on the future of local agriculture,” he said.

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