Baltimore urban gardening program endangered by cut in federal funds


A federally funded urban gardening program in Baltimore that has helped transform hundreds of trash-strewn vacant city lots into urban oases has lost most of its chief nutrient -- money.

The loss in funds for the 15-year-old program has raised questions about its future among its administrators and supporters.

"It's not the end, but it's the end of the program as we know it," said Nan Booth, interim associate dean for extension at the University of Maryland, whose Cooperative Extension Service oversees the program.

The program, one of 23 nationwide, had its funding slashed to $35,000 from $145,000 in the federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Because of the cut, the program last week laid off all five community outreach workers who helped inner-city communities set up flower and vegetable gardens and counseled residents on nutrition.

That leaves the program, which helped start 45 gardens on 4 acres in the past year, with just one worker -- coordinator Jon Traunfeld.

"We're pretty disheartened," said Mr. Traunfeld, who has run the program for five years. "Hopefully, we'll be able to continue for the next year, working with volunteer groups like Civic Works. But we won't be able to go out and do community outreach. This year, if we get five or six new gardens going, we'll be doing OK.

"It's ironic that we glided through the Reagan-Bush years and got decimated in the first year of the Clinton administration," he said.

An official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture blamed Congress for changing the way the money was allocated. Vivan M. Jennings, deputy administrator for the agricultural extension service, said states with no cities involved wanted a share of the money, leaving less for those with existing programs.

"We're very much in favor of the program. We've got a lot of benefits from it in relation to the costs," he said.

In Baltimore, the program has set up more than 300 gardens on more than 22 acres since it began in 1978. Among them are plots in the 2400 block of Mura St. and the 1800 block of Duncan St. in East Baltimore and the 400 block of 21 1/2 St. in Barclay.

The land for the gardens is owned by the city and leased to community groups, which have typically gotten help in composting, fencing, planting and tilling. The city provides in-kind services such as office space on Gay Street and leaf compost.

Those involved say the gardens have helped beautify communities by discouraging illegal dumping on vacant lots and strengthened community spirit.

"It's the worst thing that can happen. There's a lot of programs they can cut money out of," said Francis Hayward Brown, one of three dozen gardeners with plots in the 1800 block of Duncan St.

"That block that's now a garden used to be used as a dumping ground for people around the city. That hasn't happened in the five years since that garden was started. It's one of the cleanest, best-kept lots in the city," he said.

Gloria Luster, a certified master gardener and member of the urban gardening advisory council who tills a plot in Northwest Baltimore, said that the cutback is "going to hurt because there won't be the funds to provide the assistance new gardeners need."

"As far as the expenditure of funds, it's infinitesimal compared to the benefits," she said.

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