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Learning First-Hand about Urban Food Environments

By: Christine Grillo

For the last six years, Roni Neff has treated her Baltimore Food Systems: A Case Study of Urban Food Environments class to a couple days of learning in the field. Literally. The class, which runs in the third term, takes students on a tour of Baltimore’s food system environment, going behind the scenes at a supermarket, a corner store, two urban farms, and two peri-urban farms. This year Neff is partnering with Great Kids Farm and the Baltimore City schools food and nutrition service, and the service learning component will focus on school food.

One of the goals of the course is to help students think critically about food access, food affordability, diet-related disease, the impact of food systems on the environment, and the ways in which social justice and labor issues are woven into all aspects of the food system, from the farm to the restaurant where food is served or the store where it’s purchased. In the last two years, Roni has taught the class as a solo act, but for the years before that she co-taught with Anne Palmer, another program director at CLF.

One of the class tours takes place at Whitelock Farm, a small urban farm that grows produce and sells it at community farmstands. (An alternate site visit has been Real Food Farm.) With a small amount of real estate to work with, Whitelock farmers practice intensive growing, for example, by using hoophouses over the winter and growing tomatoes vertically to save space.  Students who visit are able to speak with the farm manager about the farm’s partnerships with a nearby school and neighborhood groups, and to hear about the range of neighbors, from young to old, who help with the gardening and contribute compost.

Students are also able to learn about how Whitelock benefits the Reservoir Hill community’s low-income residents; by accepting EBT (electronic balance transfer) cards for payment, the farm is able to accept SNAP dollars and WIC dollars. (Not all farmers markets are able to accept EBT cards, which excludes shoppers who use SNAP and WIC benefits to buy food.) The farm also offers a “double dollars” program, which allows farmstand shoppers to buy twice as much produce if using an Independence card (SNAP), Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers, or WIC Fruit & Vegetable Checks.

Another site visit in the city is the Aquaponics Project facility in Cylburn Arboretum. This aquaponics facility is a demonstration project being conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future to explore the viability of producing sustainably-raised fish in an urban setting. The term “aquaponics” is a marriage of the words “aquaculture” and “hydroponics,” and it’s the practice of using a closed system in which plants and fish are grown together; fish fertilize the water, which feeds the plants, and the plants filter the water for the fish. “It’s a great science teaching tool,” says Laura Genello, the aquaponics farm manager.

In operation since 2012, the aquaponics farm has not only been a great teaching tool, but a great learning opportunity. For example, Genello has discovered that the aquaponics system is not conducive to growing fruit, but that leafy greens such as chard, romaine lettuce, and kale do very well with the nitrogen levels in the water. They’ve experimented with using bamboo rafts as well as Styrofoam rafts, and are still finding ways to use biological pest control.

Visits to peri-urban farms are part of the curriculum, too, as students in the Baltimore Food Systems class venture by bus into Baltimore County to talk with farmers at Albright Farms in Jacksonville, and Prigel Family Creamery in Glen Arm, Maryland.

Bobby Prigel runs the dairy farm once owned by his great grandfather, a sharecropper who bought it in 1906. His is a grass-based system in which his 150 milk cows are outside all the time, “working for their food.” Bred for longevity, these cows live almost four times as long as dairy cows on a more conventional farm: “Most of our cows are Brown Jerseys, because they’re better at handling the elements,” says Prigel.

While the farm itself is organic, the Prigel products are not. “The ice cream would be twice as expensive if we made it certified organic,” says Prigel. “One reason is having to buy organic cane sugar, which is very expensive, and sugar beets are GMOs.” While the students tour the farm and the milking facilities, as well as watching the ice cream get made, Bobby Prigel explains some of the challenges of running a small farm. “How do we compete?” he asks. “We can’t go head to head with 35,000 cows.”

Like Prigel, Albright Farms is a family operation. Every year, the Albrights grow about 30,000 pounds of tomatoes, 55,000 heads of lettuce, 6,000 pastured chickens, beef cattle, hogs and more. Tom Albright talks with students about his medley of farming practices. “We’re not organic, we farm conventionally,” he says, but he does employ organic practices such as using cover crops, mixing his own feed, and never using antibiotics or hormones in the animal feed. He and his sons use an integrated pest management format, spraying “no more than necessary.” When students ask about his farming philosophy and methods, Albright is more than happy to speak frankly about the volatility of the business of farming, the pressure that farmers feel from environmental groups, the dramatic impact of the price of a bushel of corn, the farming legacy left by his World War II veteran grandfather, and public perception of farming as a career. “We’ve forgotten the true purpose of the land grant university,” he says. “The true purpose of the University of Maryland is not basketball, it’s the land grant—it’s promoting ag and ag research and training. We need to get back to training people.”

Over the years, students have ranked Baltimore Food Systems as one of their favorite classes, and many seem to appreciate the opportunity to tackle and decipher the contradictions in the food system. Roni credits public health hero Anna Baetjer with some of the inspiration for the course. While she never met Baetjer, she took a class known as “the Anna Baetjer Course” in occupational health, which was originally taught by Baetjer. “It was one of the most memorable and impactful courses I took while a student at the school,” says Roni. “One key difference between this class and that one is that the Anna Baetjer class focused on taking us behind the scenes in places like factories, thus making the unknown known.  By contrast, everyone has been to a supermarket—but there is so much we don't know about what makes a supermarket run and the decisions that go into the things we casually observe there. So a big part of what these trips do is bring to light the unknown within the known, in order to improve our ability to address challenges.”

As director of the Food System Sustainability and Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Roni has dedicated her career to thinking about food and ecological concerns. In addition to Baltimore Food Systems: A Case Study in Urban Food Environments, she co-teaches a Food System Sustainability Practicum course, with Meg Burke. In 2012-2013 Roni was a SOURCE Service-Learning faculty fellow—here are some of her thoughts about service-learning, which she wrote up in May 2014 when she was named a service-learning champion of the month.

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