Baltimore program connects farms and corner stores

At Linden Market in Reservoir Hill, shelves are heaped high with miniature pies, cupcakes, and candy. Three dozen flavors of salty snacks burst from cardboard boxes.

Around the corner at the Whitelock Community Farm, deep green leaves of chard fan from raised beds, cucumber vines wind up trellises and Japanese eggplants resembling glossy purple commas dangle from stalks.

Beginning this week, the corner store and the farm, which are just a couple of blocks apart, will forge an unlikely partnership. As part of a pilot program sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the city health department, Linden Market will begin selling vegetables from the farm.

While neighborhood markets routinely stocked locally grown food a century ago, in today's Baltimore — where one in five residents doesn't have easy access to healthy food — finding produce in corner stores, let alone locally-grown vegetables, is rare.

"More people would eat healthy, if they could just walk down the street and buy vegetables," said Reservoir Hill resident Loveeda Carter. "A lot of people can't get to the store."

Carter already buys fresh vegetables for her three grandchildren from the Whitelock Farm on Saturday mornings, the only day the farm's produce is offered for sale. But she plans to purchase more farm vegetables from the corner store.

The pilot program is being rolled out at one other city store this week:Belair-Edison's Dakao Market, which will sell produce from Lake Clifton's Real Food Farm. City officials hope to spur more corner stores to sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

"The goal is to improve access to healthy, affordable food as well as helping local businesses," said MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake. "Selling locally grown fresh produce achieves all those results."

Elisa Lane, who manages the Whitelock Community Farm, said the mere presence of a small farm has sparked an interest in fresh produce among neighbors. Residents wander through the beds and pick up vegetables at the Saturday market.

Robert Fenwick, 23, who works as an intern at the farm, said fresh produce was hard to come by when he was growing up in Reservoir Hill. Now children are drawn to the leafy beds, where bees dart into pale yellow okra flowers, and crickets fling themselves from a thicket of sweet potato leaves.

"We've had kids actually sneak in to try to pick the vegetables," he said. "We started picking the tomatoes early because they were all getting eaten."

Rick Gwyallen, associate director of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, said the farm brings together the neighborhood's diverse residents. He believes the corner store program will further encourage residents — who include middle-class retirees, young professionals and families living below the poverty line — to mingle.

"You need places to interact, somewhere to meet people you wouldn't normally meet," said Gwyallen.

The land where the farm now stands was once the neighborhood's retail hub, home to fish markets, cobblers and tailors, Gwyallen said. But, as residents fled to the suburbs, the stores emptied out and became havens for drug dealers. The city razed the buildings about two decades ago, and a community garden and farm sprouted in their place.

Claire Welsh, a researcher at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the corner store pilot program grew out of a project targeting childhood obesity. Two of every three children in Baltimore are overweight, and one of every three children is considered obese, she said.

Obesity is more common, ironically, in the city's "food deserts" — where residents have limited access to transportation, and stores that sell healthy food are more than a mile away.

Residents of these neighborhoods are more likely to eat foods from nearby carryouts and corner stores, and the offerings —chicken boxes, chips, sodas and candy — tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients

The Hopkins researchers donated a refrigerator case to the Linden Market and are subsidizing the first month of produce from the Whitelock Community Farm. They are installing promotional signs at the corner stores, stocking recipe cards next to the vegetables, and will be hosting cooking classes and food tastings at the stores.

"Our main goals are really to address the barriers to getting affordable healthy food to residents," Welsh said. During the three-month pilot program, the team will be interviewing the store owners and farmers to see how to make the program financially advantageous to both.

"We hope to collect enough information and data to take it to a larger scale," Welsh said.

Jason Kim, who owns Linden Market with his wife, is skeptical that his customers will buy the vegetables.

"I personally don't think it's going to work," he said. "I've been around long enough to know their diet is based mostly on sugar."

Kim said he primarily sells cigarettes and snack foods these days. But it hasn't always been that way. When his father opened the store in 1987, he said, customers bought many more groceries and it was more of a market and less of a convenience store.

On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of customers purchased sodas and snacks. Children fished bright pink popsicles from a freezer case and counted out change to buy packs of candy.

Only a few customers wandered down the aisles that held dusty cans of fruits and vegetables and packages of ramen noodles. Larry Smith, 68, picked out groceries: a gallon of lemon drink, cans of carrots and pork and beans, a box of sugar, a tub of sour cream.

Smith said he sometimes buys fresh vegetables from the supermarket and would consider buying the farm's produce, but, "it all depends on the price."

But customer James Outlaw, 71, from his perch in front of the Keno monitor in the back of the store, was confident his wife would buy the local vegetables. She grows cabbage, collards, tomatoes and squash in her plot in the community garden, and is always eager to add more vegetables to their diet, he said.

"I want to be a vegetarian," Outlaw said, laughing. The couple currently travels from their home in the Lakeview Towers, a nearby senior apartment complex, to Mondawmin or Lexington Market to buy produce, unless the A-rabbers pass by in their horse-drawn carts, he said.

Holly Freishtat, the city's food czar, said the goal of the corner store project is to make it easier for residents to obtain vegetables. "People shop where it is convenient for them."

Freishtat is working with the Hopkins team and the Whitelock farm crew to bring cooking classes to nearby John Eager Howard Elementary so residents can learn how to prepare the vegetables.

As she chatted with friends in front of the Linden Market, Paula Curtis said she currently travels a few miles to Lexington Market or the Shopper's Food Store in Mondawmin Mall to buy produce.

The 57-year-old said she has been trying to incorporate more healthy food into her diet after being diagnosed with diabetes. But she only manages to get to the grocery store once or twice a month — and sometimes on foot.

"I'd buy them a lot more if they were right here," said Curtis.