Real Food and Beyond

How a Baltimore urban farm continued being an essential resource for the community in a pandemic
By Brianna Parker
Two Americorps volunteers planting vegetables. (Photo by Brianna Parker)

East Baltimore’s Clifton Park is home to the Clifton Mansion, a golf course, and Civic Works’ Real Food Farm. On this particular Friday afternoon, it is buzzing with activity from chirping crickets, to a dog running through the meadow beside the hoop houses, house-like structures used for growing produce.

Two Americorps volunteers kneel before a long, thin bed of greens, planting young broccoli. A green food truck stands at the ready waiting to be filled with produce boxes.

Gwen Kokes, Food and Farm Manager for Civic Works, sits in front of the hoop houses on a stool wearing a standard farm outfit of jeans, a t-shirt, boots, and a cap. Before COVID, Real Food Farm sold their food at mobile markets and pop-up stands in East Baltimore. It became evident, as soon as the coronavirus hit, that their most vulnerable customers would be in need.

One of the first challenges, Kokes explained, was to get food to older adults stuck at home.

“We wanted to make sure that the food that we normally are selling to people was still easily accessible,” said Kokes.

To address this need, an entirely new system emerged. Volunteers, building upon a relationship with the Baltimore City School system, rescued food from closed cafeterias and the school systems’ Great Kids Farm and redistributed the food for free.

120 seniors are served with boxes containing $15-$20 worth of produce for the price of $5 each. The paid model evolved to ensure that the program could be continued as long as necessary, as Kokes says, “COVID isn’t going away anytime soon.” (Photo by: Brianna Parker)

“The mission and culture of Civic Works is service to the community,” says Lauren Averella, Senior Program Director, during a virtual interview.

Civic Works, for the past 20 years as a nonprofit organization, has been enriching Baltimore City by providing services such as job training, food access, and beautification projects. 

Baltimore City, recognizing Civic Works’ speed and efficiency in bringing food to vulnerable populations for the past few months, asked for their help with Code Red heat advisory relief. 

Older adults, as summer temperatures soared, were trapped at home when they would ordinarily be engaged in activities at air-conditioned community centers. Civic Works volunteers, to address this need, distributed 2,100 box fans and 700 AC units. 

Civic Works has many to thank for their success, most notably being the Americorps program. A national volunteer service corps, the federally-funded program places volunteers with organizations like Civic Works and provides valuable real-world experience to its volunteers.

Real Food Farm Hoop Houses. (Photo by Brianna Parker)

One of the most common projects for these volunteers is farming. “We train young adults in farming and food access work and industrial food projects and get people connected to other food jobs once they graduate from us,” explains Kokes.

The farm, deemed “essential” by government and public health officials, was not forced to close and added 15 new Americorps members recruited to work alongside the full-time farmers during the height of the COVID shutdown. Safety procedures, such as masks, enhanced sanitation and social distancing, were enforced.

“We still have Americorps members and making sure they still have an opportunity to do service was very important to us,” said Averella.

Stuart Jones, a Civic Works employee, said he enjoys watching Americorps volunteers be forced to break out of their comfort zone. “It’s always nice to see people come in kind of shy, timid, and at the end of their time here they’ve gained confidence and direction and hopefully more marketable skills for their next job,” said Jones.

Americorps members are not the only volunteers, either. Community members have been volunteering since the farm’s start.

Earl Millett, a senior citizen who has volunteered for the past two years after having been an employee, frequently stops by the farm in between his deliveries.

His dedication, he explains, is because of the results of their work.

“They focus on a direct response to low-income individuals, so they’re in the community and the community appreciates them,” said Millett. “I trust the opinion of the people who are being served even more than my own on the work that’s getting done. You can see how the programs and staff are received.”

It’s evident that even a global pandemic cannot dim the light that Civic Works brings to the most vulnerable members of the community.

With each bag of greens, broccoli, string beans, and potatoes, they are making a difference. 

“Even with everything that this pandemic has destroyed, it can’t stop this,” said Kokes.

Brianna Parker is a graduate student at the University of Baltimore.

Dispatches showcases the University of Baltimore students pursuing graduate level degrees in writing. If you are interested in submitting an article for review, please contact editor-in-chief Leonard Robinson