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Cultivating a healthier lifestyle

The Baltimore Sun

To find vegetables at the corner store on West Lexington Street in Southwest Baltimore, residents have to walk past the shelves of beef jerky, potato chips and six-packs of beer to the glass case of a darkened deli counter in the back.

There, beside the hunks of corned beef and honey ham, there is one head of lettuce, its outer leaves gray with rot, and one green bell pepper, its skin wrinkled with age. Up the block, in a store on a stretch of North Monroe Street, there are a few vegetables behind locked doors; anyone who wants them has to yell to the cashier through a Plexiglas wall.

"You go to these corner stores, and you can't even find a fresh tomato," said Paul Booth, 82, a longtime resident and community activist. "Being a diabetic, I have to watch what I eat. I have to ask my children to drive me into Howard County for something fresh."

Weary of the hunt for fresh food -- and alarmed by a study that found climbing rates of obesity and high blood pressure in their neighborhood -- a group of Franklin Square residents enlisted the help of a master gardener and decided to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

That was two years ago.

The once-weedy lot at Fulton Avenue and Fayette Street, where 14 rowhouses had once stood, is now an organic garden with raised beds of sweet peas, herbs, tomatoes and collard greens. Residents buy the vegetables for nominal prices: a bag of kale goes for about 75 cents; a bunch of mint is a quarter; a bag of peas a dollar.

Some of the gardeners, like longtime resident and local minister Amos Burgess, enjoyed growing his own vegetables so much that he tilled his backyard this winter and planted radishes, spinach, beets, corn and watermelon.

Some in this group of gardeners, which has grown to 42 people, are even growing their own wheat and holding friendly competitions over whose yield is best. Those who don't have yards grow fruits and vegetables in containers fashioned out of trash cans, scrap wood, plastic -- anything that will hold the soil.

The garden dovetailed with a broader effort to revitalize the neighborhood by cleaning and beautifying vacant lots.

"What's special here is that so many community gardens go up quickly as a hobby and then die as soon as the last gardener moves on or leaves," said Kate Joyce, the master gardener who taught residents how to cultivate vegetables and use marigolds instead of chemical pesticides to ward off insects. "But this one has kept going. These gardeners are serious and passionate."

The conditions that frustrated this Southwest Baltimore community are common in so many impoverished neighborhoods around the country, Joyce said. Often, it's easier to find -- and afford -- potato chips rather than apples; or beer instead of milk.

The garden is one way this neighborhood of about 3,500 adults is working to erase health disparities that make them more prone to life-threatening illnesses and less likely to get routine checkups.

Four years ago, a team of interviewers from the Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a Southwest Baltimore community group called Operation ReachOut SouthWest gathered information from more than 1,400 residents on health behavior, health care access, and housing and community conditions that contributed to poor health.

A third of the residents described their health as "fair to poor." About half of the men and 62 percent of the women were overweight. Of about 400 people diagnosed with blood pressure problems, 78 percent said their condition had gone unchecked because they did not routinely go to a doctor's office.

The interviewers found elevated blood pressure in more than 500 other residents who said they hadn't been diagnosed with the condition. As many as a half of the residents also told researchers they didn't get screened for cancers known to disproportionately affect minority groups, including colorectal and breast cancers.

Another study conducted this winter found that most of the 35 corner stores and groceries around Franklin Square offered diet sodas, but residents were hard-pressed to find nonsugary cereals, low-fat milk, lean meats and whole-grain breads.

The neighborhood conditions ultimately led to the garden. Avid gardeners like Burgess say the garden will help chip away at those health problems, but it will happen slowly.

"You can't find the healthy foods here. These kids, they don't get the vitamins and the nutrients they need. And if you don't feed your body right, then you don't feed this," he said, pointing to his head.

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