Dressed in a yellow hoodie and caramel-colored slacks, Eric Jackson sits in his South Baltimore office. The 36-year-old filmmaker is the co-founder
and director of the Black Yield Institute (BYI), a Black-led food sovereignty organization and urban farm in Southwest Baltimore.
“What does it mean to be fully human?” he asks. “What does it smell like? What does it feel like? How does it taste?”
To Jackson, at least part of that answer lies in the community garden some two blocks away, where rows of collards, tomatoes, squash, and kale were once in full bloom. But the garden lies empty now.
Last June, the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden, a 1.25-acre plot of land which BYI had run and operated for over five years, and which had distributed more than 3,200 pounds of fresh produce to residents, was served an immediate eviction order by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. BYI was occupying the land without permission. After months of back and forth between city officials and local activists, the organization agreed to move the farm three miles away to a new property in Mt. Clare.
Now, one year later, the incident continues to serve as a painful reminder to activists, farmers, and community members alike that the movement toward food justice and food sovereignty starts and ends with the land.
There are more than 100 farms and community gardens in Baltimore City. These farms occupy over 24 acres of land and produce roughly 93,000 pounds of produce each year. And although they engage with only two percent of city residents, they do considerable work. They provide access to fresh and healthful produce in places like Cherry Hill where that access is limited, if available at all.
“We used to believe that urban agriculture was going to be the great equalizer,” says Denzel Mitchel Jr., co-executive director of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, a nonprofit organization that serves the collective, which also encompasses community gardens and Farm Alliance members. “That’s what we were saying 10 to 15 years [ago], but you need resources, you need capital, you need money to get involved in these spaces. So no, that’s not true.”
“We all gotta eat,” says Jackson. The question is how.
The widening wealth gap between white and Black residents in the city of Baltimore is well-documented. Historic segregation lines, widening median incomes, and disparate homeownership rates are a byproduct of years of redlining and discriminatory policies that target Black and low-income residents.
“It’s organized abandonment,” says Sarah D’Adamo, a farmer at Hidden Harvest Farm, an urban farm on North Calvert Street. In 2019, she was living on Eutaw Street in Bolton Hill. It was a prime example of a historic segregation line. “[At that time,] on one side of the street, the side I lived on, the median household income [was] $120,000. On the other side, it [was] $20,000.”
She says that she looked up these figures in maybe 2019, when she was living in Bolton Hill, on Eutaw Street; she now lives in Roosevelt Park.
Cherry Hill is no exception. More than 50 percent of households in Cherry Hill make below $25,000 a year. The neighborhood does not have a single grocery store, and more than 40 percent of households do not have access to a car to get to one. The neighborhood is a Healthy Food Priority Area (HFA), commonly known as a food desert. Thirty-one percent of Black residents in Baltimore live in HFAs. Amid abandonment, urban farming answers a call by community activists and residents seeking an alternative order of care and recognition. Farms provide residents with sustenance and options in a landscape where there are none.
“People have decided that there is a particular merit system related to who can have food, what kind of food [they can have], and where it comes from,” says Jackson. “Farming is a tactic that resists the idea that somebody gets to decide what you can have.”
Yusuf Hadith, 75, has lived in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore his whole life. A Vietnam War veteran, he talks candidly about his struggles with PTSD after the war. He says his eating habits brought on by unhealthy food led to a score of health issues.
“I was a single parent with six children,” says Hadith. “I got into the habit of convenience. I call it convenient eating caused by desperation, by the loss of wealth, by anger, and the loss of stability.”
Healthful food options in Sandtown-Winchester are limited; the neighborhood is an HFA. Hadith credits urban farms and practitioners like Crystal Forman, a wellness coach and farmer at the Whitelock Community Farm, for changing his life. Forman shares recipes and leads live-cooking demonstrations that utilize produce harvested directly on-site, like winter squash. Recipes include dishes like chickpea and carrot stew, peanut soup, and kale salad. All the meals are made with ingredients grown on the farm.
“Crystal came in with this idea of vegetarian cooking and I tried her recipes,” says Hadith. “I started fixing her recipes during the week and I noticed that my strength and my health got better.”
THERE ARE MORE THAN 100 FARMS AND COMMUNITY GARDENS IN BALTIMORE CITY.
A permaculture designer and Baltimore City Master Gardener, Forman dedicates her life to teaching people how to cook fresh produce, avoid food waste, and find comfort in easily assembled home-cooked meals. Her Afro-diaspora-inspired dishes have reached over 4,000 people through live-cooking demonstrations, livestreams, and various speaking engagements.
“People should not have to be concerned about food anywhere on this planet, but especially not in this country and especially not in Baltimore City. We have parks and we have land,” says Forman, who founded Holistic Wellness in 2015.
Forman talks excitedly about dreams of food forests across the city one day, of parks brimming with fruit trees and edible plants. “I felt like this as a young child. I’ve never understood why we didn’t have food growing everywhere—and I feel like that now.”
“If you make [food] available, people will eat it,” says Hadith. “How does the saying go? Build it and they’ll come.”
Juanita Brown-Ewell, a lifelong Cherry Hill resident, opened the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden in 2010. The 72-year-old gardener and member of the Cherry Hill Development Corporation board was looking for a way to feed her neighborhood.
Just five years prior, 14,000 Baltimore residents, including those in Cherry Hill, had won a historic class action lawsuit against the House Authority, the City of Baltimore, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The plaintiffs argued that the public housing system unfairly concentrated African-American residents in the most impoverished and segregated areas of the city. The Federal District court agreed.
“[The farm] is not a pet project,” says Jackson bluntly. “It is literally about survival.”
Jackson’s path to food justice began in 2011 when his grandmother, Edith May Louise Briscoe, passed away after a lifelong battle with diabetes, in part due to her diet. “The life expectancy in the Cherry Hill community is 69. She lived based on [that] expectation,” explains Jackson. “When under the thumb of oppression, the consequences show up in a number of ways, including in our food environment. One of my biggest heroes happened to be a casualty of that war. That is the human cost of food apartheid.”
Years later, with his grandmother on his mind, Jackson began gathering friends and calling on his neighbors to devise a plan. A filmmaker whose stories often follow the lives of Black Baltimore residents impacted by redlining and years of discriminatory policies, Jackson was tired of telling the same story. It was time to get things done. The result: a community-led cooperative in Cherry Hill aimed at providing the community with healthful food options at an affordable price.
Founded in 2015, BYI works as a food aggregator, teaming with Black farmers and vendors throughout Baltimore County to give residents access to better food. The ultimate goal is land and food sovereignty, explains Jackson, a model of governance that grants the people rights to control, produce, and distribute food.
In 2018, three years after Brown-Ewell’s passing, The Black Yield Institute took over the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden. Any authorization to use the land which had been secured by Brown-Ewell was presumed to have expired upon her death. But Black Yield Institute forged ahead. Land and food are public goods, they argued, and city policies must change to reflect that. “It’s the people who deal with the ramifications of historically failed and racist policies,” says Jackson. “Black public servants are still operating within these structures. I’m not blaming people. The structures don’t work.”
Last December, with support from Mayor Brandon Scott, BYI identified a new site in Mt. Clare. The city government granted the institute a two-year “right of entry,” which allows the organization rights to use and operate on the land freely. At any point during those two years, the organization has the option of buying the land outright.
The settlement comes as a win for food justice organizations looking to shift the dialogue. Organizations like the Farm Alliance of Baltimore and the Black Church Food Security Network have been working directly with government officials to reshape the politics around food, land, and freedom in Baltimore.
“I hope for institutions of faith to recognize manicured lawns as sins before God,” says Reverend Dr. Heber Brown III, founder of the Black Church Food Security Network (BCFSN), a collective of gardens and farms throughout the nation. The idea began in 2010 when, after seeing a rise in diet-related illnesses affecting his congregation, Brown and his parishioners revitalized the Pleasant Hope church garden. It wasn’t until after the Freddie Gray uprising in 2015 that Brown began to recognize the urgency and founded the BCFSN.
“The corner stores closed down, the public school closed for a couple of days, public transportation was halted or adjusted in Black communities, and because our church was known as the food church, our phone started ringing,” recalls Brown.
The Reverend called on local Black farmers who he had cultivated a relationship with over time. He went back to his congregation, opened the door for more donations, and began feeding protestors and city residents.
“We piled [produce] up on our church bus and for a good two-and-a-half weeks, I was driving food around Baltimore, setting up shop on various corners where people called or where demonstrations were happening,” says Brown. “It was Black churches, Black farmers, and the Black community, that triangle.”
Today the Black Church Food Security Network includes over 15 churches across the city of Baltimore and over 190 churches nationwide, including church gardens in Omaha, Nebraska; Los Angeles, California; Jacksonville, Florida; and Harlem, New York.
“Food can be the organizing action that brings all of these different people together,” says Brown. “Because if we can’t agree on anything else, we can agree on the necessity of food.”
The movement for food justice calls upon city officials, landowners, and corporations to recognize the collective and shared resolve of the people, explains Brown. It is a movement to grant autonomy to communities that have been systematically disenfranchised by granting individuals the right to choose how to live by what they eat. Urban farming “is not just about sweet potatoes and kale,” says Brown. “We’re about honoring human beings and honoring Black lives in a very tangible way.”
“FOOD CAN BE THE ORGANIZING ACTION THAT BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER.”
And hope is, in fact, on the horizon.
In a continued show of good faith, the Scott administration awarded BYI a $1-million grant through the mayor’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) this September. The fund will be used to hire a full-time staff, invest in outdoor refrigerators, and prepare for the upcoming growing season, when the organization hopes to grow vegetables and medicinal herbs.
The Black Yield Institute is stepping into a new era, with money, political support—and land. All eyes are on Eric Jackson.
“What does it mean to be fully human?” Jackson muses again. “The people get fed,” he says without missing a beat.