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Joyce Smith, 1952 – 2018

By: Christine Grillo

The Baltimore food community will deeply miss one of its most passionate members, Joyce Smith, who died recently of heart failure at Johns Hopkins Hospital at the age of 66. She was known and loved by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) for all of her work on behalf of her community, and toward making food systems healthier, more resilient and more equitable.

In her role as a community relations coordinator at the CLF, she connected researchers and food system reform advocates to her community through Operation ReachOut SouthWest (OROSW), which she helped to found. As part of OROSW’s strategic plan, the CLF partnered with Joyce to conduct the first community food assessment in Baltimore. As a leader in that organization, she helped to educate her community about the importance of diet and exercise in disease prevention. Joyce was a familiar face at community events (such as this back-to-school event where she introduced children to “ants on a log”) and could often be found offering samples of healthy snacks or giving advice about how to cook nutritious foods in delicious ways. An avid gardener, she was involved in community gardens and often sold produce at affordable prices from those sites or nearby locations.

Joyce was immensely helpful to researchers at the CLF through her work with Community Food Assessments, which surveyed people in Baltimore about the availability of food in their neighborhoods and explored food security in those neighborhoods. She trained many community members on how to conduct a survey for the community food assessments throughout many Baltimore neighborhoods. During the Center’s 2016 Polly Walker Ecology Fund event, Joyce charmed the audience with stories ranging from topics such as the arabbers who sold produce from horse-drawn carts in her childhood neighborhood to selling produce on the corners of Southwest Baltimore.

In her life, Joyce not only talked the talk but also walked the walk. She changed her lifestyle to be more healthy, “divorcing” herself from sugar-sweetened soda, with which she joked to have a “longer relationship than any man.” All her community events featured healthy options; kale salads, fruit bowls and water. Long before urban agriculture became popular, she started the OROSW garden and grew food in her small backyard in the middle of her community. And she is perhaps most cherished for her personal interest in the health and healthy habits of those she knew and loved.

Here are a few remembrances from those who knew and worked with her.

Kate Clancy, Visiting Scholar, Center for a Livable Future

“I met Joyce a little before the start of the EFSNE project eight years ago, and was taken with her savvy, her obvious commitment to the health and welfare of members of her community, and her willingness to work with everyone. She was not only one of the Baltimore liaisons to EFSNE, but also served on the Advisory Council of the project where colleagues throughout the Northeast came to know and respect her. She brought the message of healthy food, and viable stores, and regional consciousness to her Southwest and the greater Baltimore community, and helped us to understand more deeply their assets and challenges. I am so grateful to have known and worked with this wonderful person—and join with all of CLF in mourning her passing.”

Holly Freishtat, Baltimore City Food Policy Director, Department of Planning Office of Sustainability

“Joyce leaves a legacy showing how one resident can make a ripple that has turned into a movement. She was determined, resilient and committed to addressing the inequity of healthy foods and lifestyle in predominantly Black communities. She advocated for food as medicine and for creating healthy communities where growing food, shopping at farmers markets and cooking were integral pieces to a healthy and fulfilling life. She and I co-chaired the inaugural Resident Food Equity Advisor cohort and shared food stories at the CLF Stoop Storytelling event. Joyce was my ‘food hero’ and I will miss her.”

Bob Lawrence, Founding Director, CLF

Joyce Smith had a big heart and a sturdy spine. She cared deeply about her neighbors and her family and worked tirelessly to improve the living conditions of Southwest Baltimore. In her role as the CLF community relations coordinator

Joyce educated us about the needs of her community and helped us make our programs more effective in meeting those needs. She showed in her life what Albert Schweitzer described as, ‘The interior joy we feel when we have done a good deed, when we feel we have been needed somewhere and have lent a helping hand, is the nourishment the soul requires.’ Her warmth and ease with people from every walk of life endeared her to all. She will be sorely missed as a friend, colleague, and moral compass.”

Shawn McKenzie, Deputy Director, CLF

I first worked with Joyce in 2007 when she participated in the School’s Mid-Atlantic Health Leadership Institute. She immediately impressed me as a person with a true sense of purpose. To me, that sense of purpose—combined with wonderfully creative problem-solving skills and a special gift for connecting with people—was part of what made Joyce such a unique person. Over the years, I came to admire Joyce for her generous spirit, and for the way she always made the time to talk and connect. Her natural way with people was inspiring and served as a reminder to all of us to take the time and to appreciate our common humanity.

Joyce was one of the most authentic people I’ve ever known–equally comfortable expressing humor, vulnerability, empathy and determination. She was a great colleague and a natural leader. It was a gift to know Joyce. She’ll be missed by so many.  ​​

Roni Neff, Program Director, Food System Sustainability & Public Health Program

“Joyce came to my Baltimore Food Systems class every year to talk about her experiences as a community leader and resident within the city’s food system. The students routinely praised her talks in their course evaluations— they loved listening to her and clearly learned a lot from her. They valued her willingness to be open with them and not just tell them what she thought they wanted to hear. She also had a gift for using illustrative and often funny stories and examples to make her points, and for sharing key details that brought the stories to life. And the students were (and I am) inspired by her own story of seeing a need and stepping up to work for change.”

Anne Palmer, Director, Food Communities and Public Health Program, CLF

“My favorite memory of working with Joyce was when we decided to buy a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] share so we could sell discounted produce on the corner of Fulton Avenue and Fayette Street on a weekly basis.  One day a young man was standing on the corner, preparing to make a drug deal by gesturing subtlety to another young man down the block. Joyce walked over to the young man and briefly engaged him in a quiet conversation. Minutes after she talked to him, he left, without a transaction taking place in front of us. She had told him that he was too young to be making a career decision and she was too old to be changing hers—so one of them needed to leave. Her no-nonsense approach demanded respect.  I miss her every day.”