Fresh, Neighborhood-Grown: Whitelock Community Farm and Dovecote Café provide oasis in Reservoir Hill's food desert

Outside Dovecote Café in Reservoir Hill, Isabel Antreasian is in the middle of a sale. She hands a brown lunch bag to a man who had driven up in a truck marked with the Baltimore City seal. Her "store" is parked next to her: a red, three-tiered cart on wheels attached to a bicycle. It's stocked with green onions, tomatoes, okra, eggplants, peaches, and more.

Once the man has hopped back into his truck, a woman walks up. She wants to know about the contents of a small carton sitting on a cooler of farm-fresh eggs. It's full of what looks like delicate candies wrapped in individual leaves of tissue paper. Antreasian explains that they are ground cherries and encourages the woman to try one, and she does. She buys a bunch, along with a juicy looking peach, and is soon on her way.

Antreasian, the programs manager at Whitelock Community Farm, explains that Dovecote is just one stop on her Thursday route around Reservoir Hill. She also stops at nearby Lucky's Market and an apartment building. Her customers are a mix of people who are pleasantly surprised to stumble across an easy way to get fresh produce in a super local way, as well as faithful followers who know what they want.

The small farm, which is less than an acre, stands at 922 Whitelock St., where a vacant lot used to be. There are various rows of different fruits and vegetables, a small greenhouse, and even a sunflower patch. Since its beginnings in 2010, the farm has always been about community involvement.

"Some people are kind of like 'oh I could go to the store but I know exactly where this is coming from and I'm into that idea' or some people talk about affordability of fresh produce or talk about quality of produce from the store," Antreasian says. "We definitely had people come and prefer to get fresh greens here because at the store you don't know how long they've been sitting there or maybe they are starting to go bad. Kind of touching on all the notes on the value of having local farms like quality, convenience."

Whitelock is a food oasis in the middle of a food desert—one of several in a city that has historically underserved whole swaths of its population, leaving them without easy access to grocery stores where they can buy fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables. Folks at Whitelock are looking to fix that problem, both through access and education. They offer classes, potlucks, giveaways, and the Thursday mobile market to put food directly in people's hands.

"I think if you're buying directly from a grower or somebody who is working with a grower, you get to have that interaction, right, whereas if you are going to a store and just picking something up, you're still getting the product but . . . there's no room for questioning or just kind of getting more detail," Antreasian says. "So it's super nice to have the space to both tell everybody what you have, talk about what's growing in season, and maybe tell them how or when it was harvested, different things you can do with that produce, that interaction I think is really valuable."

A few weeks earlier, at the actual farm, located around the corner from Dovecote, Alison Worman, Whitelock's farm manager, is walking through one of Whitelock's plots of land with Anita Robinson. Robinson's arms are loaded down with what look like long green stalks, bunches of weeds, and purple flowers. It turns out, some of what is in her bundle is mugwort, an herb with medicinal properties. She also has some purple clover.

Robinson is learning to become a Master Gardener through a program at the University of Maryland. She says she comes to Whitelock to get the kind of hands-on learning you can't get in a classroom.

"I'm still so new to gardening, but once you actually get out here and learn it then it's easier to teach it to other people," Robinson says. She gestures toward a plot of sweet, earthy-smelling basil. "Even just cultivating, harvesting basil, especially if you're doing it for a CSA, you can't just chop it from the base. [Worman] showed me how you take it from the top, and you still have to present it and pick the healthiest pieces and you look for spots, and also the bugs."

"I'm always like, 'Anita, come look at this bug!'" Worman adds, laughing. "But that's how I learned about all this stuff too. You can read books and take classes and that's a great way to learn, but I think exposure is another one of the reasons why we're here. . . . However far you want to go into that, so if you want to learn how to grow the vegetables, if you want to come eat the vegetables, if you just want to come here and have lunch at the picnic table—there's a full range of ways people can engage."

Robinson says that she first learned about Whitelock through a class they offered. There she learned about making tinctures, that is, preserving herbs in liquid like vodka or apple cider vinegar, to extract the benefits.

Worman says some of the workshops are put on by Whitelock, but they are also open to anyone else who wants to use the space to teach what they know.

"The tincture class was taught by a MICA student who was volunteering here and she was like, 'I know a little bit about this thing, let me spread the word about it.'"

Getting back to the plants in Robinson's possession, she tells Worman that she wants to run home and look online to learn more about the plants.

"I'm going to Google this when I get home and then I'm going to Google the purple clover," she says. "Dry it and make it into a tea or just plant it in my yard and wait for it to come back next year."

"I think that's another great thing about working in a community," Worman adds. "Like I know that mugwort has benefits because I was told that once, but I don't remember exactly what they are, so now we can work together to figure out exactly. . . . There's never-ending learning that can happen."

Back at Dovecote, co-owner Aisha Pew says that one of the things she thinks about often is the back and forth pull of supply and demand. For example, are food deserts lacking because residents don't want access to places where they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, or because no one gave them a choice in the first place? Or, when it comes to farms, what happens to the surplus of produce that can't always be sold to restaurants, CSAs, or at farmer's markets?

"There are so many reasons why there's both scarcity and abundance, and one of the main reasons that I like to call it is pure racism," Pew says. "We're not thinking about ways to price things strategically, to place things strategically, to be a provision of services and products in a way that really meets the human need that if it can't be capitalized, we'd rather dispose of it than address scarcity."

Dovecote is helping to fill that gap and meet a need by offering some of Whitelock's excess produce for weekly giveaways at the café, and also by making sure that Whitelock makes its weekly stop.

"It's not a price point issue; it really is about access because that is a very different thing," Pew says. She nods toward a woman who had just left the café with a large bag bursting with green onions. "She lives around the corner. Her challenge is not about affordability, it's about in her neighborhood there's nothing being provided and so to be able to come and get fresh, neighborhood-grown produce is great and it's convenient and how food should be."

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