Participants in Eco City's summer youth program planting the first season at the new farm at Autumn Woods Apartments in Bladensburg, Md.
You're probably familiar with the idea of food deserts — areas with little access to fresh and healthy things to eat. In one such local desert, there is a new green oasis sprouting: a 3.5-acre farm in the middle of a sea of apartment buildings.
Its 9 a.m. on Saturday, and dozens of volunteers are fanning out across the Autumn Woods Apartment complex in Bladensburg, Md. Volunteers Lindsay Smith and Grace Soriano are knocking on doors to ask about people's eating and shopping habits. It takes a few tries before someone opens up.
"The purpose is really just to learn about food issues from the people who live here," explains Smith.
They're with Eco City Farms, which already runs a 1-acre urban farm a few miles away in Edmonston. This summer, Eco City is breaking ground on a new farm in this low-income apartment complex. They say it's the first working farm in the country that's on the grounds of a subsidized housing development.
They're out to spread the word to residents, and find out what they want from the farm.
Bladensburg mayor Walter James is a big supporter of the farm. He says right now, there just isn't a lot of healthy food available in his town. What there are a lot of, he says, are fast food options and convenience stores.
"We want to kind of change that and bring more healthy things to the community," he says.
So, for years, he's wanted to start an urban farm in town. One day, he was out riding his bike, and came pedaling up the hill to Autumn Woods.
"They had this open space, and I was like, you know, that would be a good location."
It's a large grassy vacant lot — unusual in these dense inner suburbs. So he started making phone calls. Soon, the Eco City farmers had arranged a rent-free, 15-year lease.
On a cloudy morning on the farm, 10 teenagers from the nearby neighborhood are hard at work planting the first season. It's part of Eco City's free summer youth camp.
"First I thought food came from out of a can and containers when I saw them in a grocery store," says Kierra Oliver. "So I didn't know how they were made until my grandma showed me they were actually planted."
The youth are learning about soil and erosion and composting, and also some basics about food.
"Most kids know a French fry, they don't know a potato," says Margaret Morgan-Hubbard, founder of Eco City Farms.
"It's really surprising how basic it is. We were growing eggplants and a kid said to me, 'Oh, that's where eggs come from.'"
Education is one big reason for putting a farm in the midst of all these apartments. It can be a sort of teaching laboratory: people walking home see it and get interested and involved.
Benny Erez is one of the camp leaders. He's an expert in compost and high-density farming. He says this little patch of land will produce a lot of food when it's up and running.
"On three acres, you could probably raise enough food for — and this is an estimate — most of the people in this apartment complex."
That's about 1,000 people — one-tenth of the entire town's population. The farmers plan to operate it as a CSA — community supported agriculture — people will be able to buy weekly deliveries of fresh veggies. Those who can't afford it can get a reduced price, or pay by working in the fields.
There have been some challenges. With hundreds of windows facing the farm, there's no shortage of feedback from residents, says Margaret Morgan-Hubbard.
Earlier in the year, farmers set up a temporary greenhouse to use as a model for teaching.
"We did it on a Sunday, and before we left we got complaints we were turning it into a shantytown."
But she says, as the farm blossoms, those complainers will start to see it as an asset, not a nuisance.
[Music: "Old MacDonald" by Playground from Playground: Jazz for the Child in All of Us]