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Culture & Artsby Fern Shen6:27 amJun 20, 20130

Fresh produce for Sandtown and a fresh start for ex-offenders

Mayor cuts ribbon on Strength to Love II Farm, first city “farmland” leased through new program.

Above: Mayor Rawlings-Blake announces the Homegrown Baltimore initiative on the site of a planned urban farm in West Baltimore.

Standing yesterday in a grassy lot in West Baltimore, a hoop house behind him and a bunch of dignitaries and community members in front of him, Elder C.W. Harris joked about the community farm starting to rise on the spot.

“No more Snickers, no more barbecue chips – we’re going to have homegrown turnips!” said Harris, founder of Strength to Love II, a program to support ex-offenders which is a partner in the new farm.

But Harris couldn’t have been more serious as he turned to their specific plans for the patch of land in Sandtown-Winchester, in the 1800 block of Kavanaugh Street, between Monroe and Fulton streets.

He spoke about healthy homegrown fruits and vegetables soon to be produced in the community and sold by members of the community making a living from their work.

Elder CW Harris, founder of Strength to Love II, at the ribbon cutting ceremony yesterday. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Elder CW Harris, founder of Strength to Love II, at the ribbon cutting ceremony yesterday. (Photo by Fern Shen)

He spoke of expanding the farm from one hoop house to 18, moving into fish farming and raising tilapia.

“Our vision,” he concluded, “is to end poverty in our community.”

It may be a lot to ask of a yet-to-be-planted patch of carrots and peas but high hopes and soaring rhetoric was what the event was all about.

Headlining the speakers at the ribbon-cutting was Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who used the opportunity to formally announce her “Homegrown Baltimore: Grow Local, Buy Local, Eat Local” initiative.

“Not Merely a Cool Trend”

Rawlings-Blake has been looking to burnish her national profile on urban farming and nutrition programs. Strength to Love II Farm, as they’re calling it, appears to be the latest addition to that part of her policy portfolio.

She told the crowd about a 2011 National Conference of Mayors Food Access Summit on the issue – a meeting in Chicago with other mayors and First Lady Michelle Obama that led to a food policy task force. It’s being chaired, she said, by Boston Mayor Tom Menino, and “I’m serving as vice chair.”

She’ll be retelling Baltimore’s strategy to combat “food deserts” tomorrow in Las Vegas, where she will be attending the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Strength to Love II Farm is the first urban agriculture site to be established through the city’s “Homegrown Baltimore Land Leasing Initiative.”

The idea is to provide long-term leases for city-owned vacant land to qualified farming organizations as a way to increase the production of local foods, create jobs, stabilize neighborhoods and eliminate blight.

“This place had some of the worst problems of vacant land. . . overgrown weeds, vines, illegal dumping,” Rawlings-Blake said, adding that turning the land into a farm has a serious purpose.

“It’s not merely a cool trend or just a fun idea, even though it is fun. Currently one out of every four children in Baltimore is living in a food desert,” she said, reminding the crowd of the high rate of obesity and obesity-related diseases among city dwellers.

She noted that the city last week entered into another lease through the program – 1.5 acres of vacant land to Real Food Farm along the 1900 blocks of Perlman Place and North Patterson Park Avenue – and that they are discussing two additional leases with Five Seed Farm.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake, with CW Harris (to her right) and others at the Strength to Love II Farm ribbon-cutting. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Mayor Rawlings-Blake, with C.W. Harris (to her right) and others at the Strength to Love II Farm ribbon-cutting. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Along with the city, via the mayor and the Department of Housing and Community Development, a who’s who of local non-profits and community and faith groups are involved.

Harris receives funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Open Society through the BMe (Black Male Engagement), which awards grants to black men to do work in the community.

The list of groups and individuals to recognize was long, including, First Mount Calvary Baptist Church, New Song Community Church and Inner Court Ministries, the Parks & People Foundation, Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, P. Flanigan & Sons for donating equipment, and Local 37 of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) for donating labor.

“There is a place for all of us in uplifting our community,” Rawlings-Blake said.

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