An oasis in an urban food desert: Real Food Farm

FOODWISE BALTIMORE: Farming in Clifton Park and two recipes for what's growing there now.


Real Food Farm’s Zach Chissell and Jazmin Simmons at the Waverly Market offering some hot deals on cold-weather veggies.

Photo by: Francine Halvorsen

I checked out Baltimore’s Real Food Farm on a recent early morning, and at some point during my tour – inside one of the 148-foot-long hoop houses, perhaps, or in the worm palace, or maybe the steaming mulch mound – I stopped noticing the below-freezing temperatures and just got swept up in the amazing operation they have.

You have to see it to believe it!

It’s on six acres in Clifton Park on what used to be Lake Clinton and then a high school football field. They broke ground on the farm in 2009 with the help of knowledgeable and industrious volunteers and the support of AmeriCorps, CivicWorks, the Abell Foundation, the Jim and Patty Rouse Charitable Foundation and dozens of local businesses.

Zach Chissell, projectmanager, Real Food Farms. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Zach Chissell, project manager of Real Food Farm. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

In October, it was one of 150 projects nationwide that got a Farmer’s Market Promotion Project grant from the Department of Agriculture. (They’re going to use it to promote their mobile marketing program.)

On the morning I was there, workers were starting to erect new seed-starting hoop houses and a local company was spreading woodchips and leaves.

Zach pointed out the foundations for two sheds, (one for farm storage, another for tools) as well as additional hoop houses and a storage refrigerator which he is hoping will one day be run on solar power.

2801 St. Lo Drive
Baltimore, MD 21213
410 366-8533

When I mentioned how I wished there was a truck that took food under proper controls to neighborhoods that had no farmers markets or even a supermarket, that was Zach’s cue.

He got on his bike as I followed in my car to the mansion that was formerly the home of Johns Hopkins (the man, not the institution), which houses the CivicWorks offices. There I saw the truck and learned about their mobile marketing program.

Community Runs

It went out during the summer and made two-hour-long “community market” stops in “food deserts,” low-income neighborhoods that otherwise have scant access to fresh produce.

On Wednesdays, they sold their produce at 3120 Erdman Avenue. On Fridays, they were at Lake Montebello near Montebello Elementary School.

A farmer's market on wheels, Real Food Farm's delivery truck. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

A farmer's market on wheels – Real Food Farm's delivery truck. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

The truck made a number of mini-stops, as well, to neighborhoods including Darley Park, Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and Bel Air-Edison. (Check the website for up-to-date information.)

How wonderful to see something I had only imagined, executed so well and running so effectively.

With future funds they hope to add stops or even new trucks to bring fresh, affordable food to other city neighborhoods that desperately need it.

Another feature of Real Food Farm is the CSA (Community supported Agriculture) program, where you pay a lump sum and get produce throughout the season.

They have a stand at the Waverly market every Saturday. And they’ve also got an educational component with curriculum-based classes for nearby Clifton Park schools, volunteers and interns. It’s hopping!

Curly kale seedlings. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Curly kale seedlings. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Overseeing it all is project director Zach Chissell, an authentic polymath, with training in landscaping, urban planning, and an interest in food.

Born in Baltimore and with a graduate business degree from University of Maryland, he also lived in Rome for two years and, while earning a degree in international business, assisted at a cooking school.


Here are some recipes for the kind of mid-winter root and leafy vegetables they’re selling now.


2 bunches of baby beets, scrubbed and gently scraped with a sharp paring knife
I bunch medium carrots, scrubbed and gently scraped with a sharp paring knife
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon Za’atar or dried thyme
a few pinches of Aleppo pepper or to taste
1 teaspoon coarse Kosher salt

Roasted baby beets and carrots. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Roasted baby beets and carrots. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Pre-heat oven to 350°
Cut carrots so that they are about the same size as the beets. Drizzle some olive oil in a shallow baking pan (I prefer ceramic or Pyrex.) Mix the rest of the oil and spices and stir into the vegetables. Place in a single layer (OK if a few overlap) in the baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and bake for 35 – 45 minutes until fork tender. Serve in baking dish to keep it warm.



2 small bunches of young curly kale
1½ teaspoon raw agave nectar – 2 teaspoons of sugar may be substituted*
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper or to taste (or black pepper)

Cooked curly kale, with agave and cinnamon.

Cooked curly kale, with agave and cinnamon. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)


Rinse the kale thoroughly, and spin-dry make sure there is no grit. (I must say the kale from Real Food Farm was pretty much grit-free.) Rinse. Trim the stems and freeze for vegetable stock.

Cut the kale in approximately 2-inch slices and rinse again.

Bring about an inch of water to boil in a non-reactive pot. Stir the kale, with water clinging to the leaves, into the boiling water. Stir for a minute until water comes back to a boil and add agave nectar, and spices. Lower heat to medium and cook stirring once or twice for 4-5 minutes until tender.

Pour through strainer and immediately place in pre-warmed serving dish. Garnish with chopped egg or chopped walnuts.

*Slightly sweetened kale is of Scandinavian origin – clearly not necessary – but an interesting variation.

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  • Barnadine the Pirate

    Can we retire the phrase “urban food desert” until such time as one is actually proven to exist? The two food truck locations mentioned are 2 miles and 1.5 miles, respectively, from a Giant supermarket and the Waverly Farmer’s market. They are accessible by car, on foot, or by mass transit. They are far closer than most suburbanitets to a farmer’s market and a large supermarket.

    I appreciate that not everyone has a car and therefore being ten miles from a market is a much bigger deal to an auto-free city resident than it is to a suburban car-slave. But I don’t think there is any place in Baltimore that is more than three or four miles from a supermarket and/or farmer’s market.

    Pre-white-flight Baltimoreans got their produce from the big markets — Lexington, Broadway, Cross Street, North Avenue, etc. ( I think it would be wonderful to reintroduce this concept.) This was in the days before most people had two cars. They would take mass transit to the market and do their shopping, or walk.. No one was refering to “urban food deserts” in 1950, despite the fact that many more city residents probably lived further away from a source of fresh food then than they do now.

    “Real Food Farm” sounds like a great, worthwhile project, and I’m glad it’s here… but the “urban food desert” is, if not exactly a myth, not really strongly associated with reality, either. There may not be a greengrocer on every corner, but that has never existed anywhere.

    • Francine Halvorsen

      Thank you for your response. Often phrases such as “food Desert” is simply a catch phrase that communicates a larger idea. You accurately defined the situation as being 1 1/2 to 2 miles from access to fresh food and is certainly not confined to Baltimore city, though that is what we write about. 
      It is a huge difficulty for people with no car and jobs that they spend a lot of time using public transportation getting to and from. We talked recently about the Virtual Supermarket…which provides online ordering of food ,in low access neighborhoods ,that can be picked up at designated public libraries. To go back to the 50’s conceptually is no better a date to refer to than 1925 and the invention and marketing of Wonder Bread.  We only hope to point out what is being done to improve things and look forward to finding out more and more ways affordable nutritious food becomes available.

  • Anonymous

    Barnadine great point! If residents of Baltimore got off their butts and walked more then perhaps they would be less inclined to want to gorge on all sorts of unhealthy foods that they ” need” a car or a bus to help transport.

  • Tyler

    Geography is only one element of the common definition of a food dessert – the other two being rates of poverty and car ownership. Different institutions have different definitions (The Baltimore City Health Department and Johns Hopkins Center for A Livable Future being two), but they almost all include those three factors.  You can debate what it means, but studies show that Americans are willing to walk 1/4 mile to a grocery store – that’s a fact of our modern existence. The white flight you refer to not only depleted the urban population,  but the supermarkets, smaller grocers, and arabbers either followed them to the suburbs or went out of business. Baltimore, per square foot and per capita, does not have as much food as it used to.

    But beyond that, availability does not equal accessibility – the food needs to be
    affordable, accessible, and culturally appropriate.

    Any program or action to increase food access is part of a larger, systemic food system change that must be addressed. Urban farming plays one role, mobile and virtual markets play another, government incentives for grocers yet another, and the list goes on. Baltimore City is blessed to have a Food Policy Director, unlike most cities, as well as an engaged citizenry that is working every day to make our city more food secure and food just.

    “Food desserts,” like most buzz words (sustainability, Ryan Gosling,
    etc.) are often imperfect and need to be continually evaluated,
    examined, discussed. That doesn’t mean the issue doesn’t exist.

  • Tyler

    Desert. not dessert…

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