Lake Clifton greenhouse project harvests 1st crops

Installation's backers hope to produce fresh food, 'green' jobs

December 17, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Baltimore Sun reporter

Though it's nearly freezing outside, fresh arugula, kale and more greens are flourishing in Hoop Village. That's the name given to Baltimore's newest urban farming venture - a trio of plastic-skinned hoop greenhouses on the historic Lake Clifton schools campus.

The structures, finished in October, are already yielding harvests that will provide wholesome snacks to some city elementary students this winter. And students at the three Lake Clifton schools are helping to raise the food they'll be eating.

"I love my vegetables," Michelle Simpson, a Heritage High School senior, said Wednesday as she proudly showed visitors the kale and cabbage she helped plant. Inside the greenhouses, it's a balmy 20 degrees warmer, with neat rows of lush kohlrabi, radish, Swiss chard, lettuce and spinach. About 1,000 tulip bulbs await spring, tucked into the rich soil of other rows.

The hoop village's builders and supporters gathered to celebrate its first crops, sampling sweet potato soup laced with collard greens, plus kale and mixed green salad. They talked of their vision to provide "green" jobs to youngsters while also supplying the Northeast Baltimore community with fresh homegrown produce.

The portable greenhouses are a joint project of two local nonprofits, Safe Healing Foundation and Civic Works, with funding from the state and city, as well as several foundations and individuals.

"It's great that food can come out of here and go straight into our cafeterias. Our young people are learning that food does not just come out of a can," said Nzinga Oneferua-El, the foundation's executive director and head of the Entrepreneur Training University, a community school on the Lake Clifton campus.

Oneferua-El said the idea for the village grew out of her quest five years ago for a place to raise the raw materials used in classes on floral design, wreath-making and the like. She originally wanted to repair the old, dilapidated greenhouse at Clifton Park, she explained, but jumped at the offer of the portable hoop houses instead.

The steel-framed, plastic-clad houses were erected with help from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne. The university also had 56 tons of organic soil trucked across the Chesapeake Bay so the vegetables would have fertile dirt in which to grow.

"They showed us how to bend the hoops and the whole shebang," said John Ciekot, project director for Civic Works, the city's urban service corps.

Along the way, the project grew in scale and ambition. Civic Works, through its Real Food Farm operation, hopes to raise 150,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables annually to serve the low-income communities around Clifton Park, which lack easy access to supermarkets with extensive fresh produce.

Beyond improving urban diets, the project aims to provide jobs in the greenhouses to local youths and adults, while also teaching them skills in agriculture, horticulture and marketing.

"We all know the drug business is accessible here," noted Ciekot. "Well, food-raising is accessible, too. They have another career path they can take."

Organizers hope eventually to build 20 hoop houses in Clifton Park in an unused field beyond the high school's track. At that scale, they hope the urban farming operation can generate enough income to be self-sustaining, and allow them to hire more gardeners rather than relying so much on volunteers.

Tony Geraci, food service director for Baltimore city schools, said he's ready to buy produce raised in the Lake Clifton greenhouses as part of his push to provide fresh, locally produced food to students. As a first step, the greenhouses will supply some produce this winter for 20 elementary schools. The project dovetails with his ambitions to transform nutrition in schools and communities.

"Our goal is to have one of these at every school," he said. "We want to create jobs and bring real food to a region that doesn't have access to it."

As the harvest begins for Lake Clifton's first crops, Ciekot is already fielding requests for portable greenhouses from other city neighborhoods that want to try producing food for their tables year-round.

"Whether run by nonprofit organizations like ours or by for-profit businesses," he said, "Baltimore has a green future, and it starts here."

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