Building delicious communities in Baltimore
It used to be a derelict location for The Wire. Now it’s a hotspot for fresh local produce and a vehicle for job creation. Here’s a look at the Baltimore Food Hub.
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For 30 years, residents in East Baltimore lived beside a toxic dump. Piled with tyres and rubble, the site was so derelict that it was used as a location on the HBO show “The Wire.” Yet in 2018, it’s becoming a destination: the Baltimore Food Hub, a culinary campus and community park.
Owned by the city for more than 100 years, the site was abandoned in the 1990s. In 2016, American Communities Trust, a Baltimore-based development group, bought the 3.5-acre parcel in hope of turning it into a centre for small food businesses.
The new owners cleaned up the property and removed toxic soil, making it safe to visit and bringing fresh food to an area that was previously short on healthy alternatives to fast food.
Now construction on the historic brick buildings is underway. Within two years, the Baltimore Food Hub will be home to start-up food businesses that promote local and regional foods, a small farm, community grills and a greengrocer. A brewery and food hall are also in the pipeline.
Today, the community’s first tenant, a social enterprise known as City Seeds, just moved in and has already begun to set an example for what Baltimore Food Hub tenants are capable of providing to their neighbours.
A social venture
Founded in 2015, City Seeds is a project from the social impact non-profit Humanim. It hires people who have barriers to employment, like mental health issues, disabilities or criminal records, and provides on-the-job training.
As a culinary social enterprise, City Seeds has four operational arms: a catering business; cafés at Kaiser Permanente and the Annie E. Casey Foundation; wholesale delivery, including grab-and-go counters at the Walters Art Museum café and Johns Hopkins cafeteria; and educational services known as School of Food.
Part of what makes the organisation an ideal fixture for a community space is the way it invests in its own employee recruits. Wholesale trainees, for example, work for about a year as section chefs or café attendants and then move on to other jobs.
And at the Baltimore Food Hub, City Seeds will widen its reach. Opening a cooking school in February, its bright, industrial kitchen will host classes on topics such as bread-making, molecular gastronomy and culinary medicine.
Previously located in a smaller space nearby, City Seeds’ move to the 670 square-metre (7,500 square-foot) space at the Baltimore Food Hub will allow it to expand its day-to-day operations. It will be able to make 5,000 meals a day, up from 2,000, and hire more people to meet demand.
The goal for City Seeds, according to director Deborah Haust, is not only to become a tasty food fixture, but also to offer business training to budding entrepreneurs, the majority of whom are low-income minorities, and connect them with local opportunities.
Fueling the food economy
Baltimore has a diverse food scene far richer than its reputation for crab cakes and Old Bay Seasoning might suggest. It’s home to countless international cuisines and chefs committed to seasonal produce. And in the Maryland city, there are a slew of culinary start-ups, food incubators like B-More Kitchen and the heralded farm-to-table restaurant Woodberry Kitchen.
With affordable rent and proximity to major markets like Washington, D.C., Baltimore has become a welcoming place for food entrepreneurs. The city government even has a Food Policy Action Coalition that brings together organisations to address nutrition, food access and retail issues.
“There’s a sense of community in the food scene here,” says Haust. “Everyone helps each other. It feels more collaborative than competitive.”
It’s perhaps intuitive then that the Baltimore Food Hub is where organisers aim to help culinary businesses grow and create more than 350 jobs — a powerful figure for a community where unemployment hovers around 20 percent and more than a third of families are below the poverty line.
Yet for City Seeds and the rest of the tenants at the Baltimore Food Hub to succeed, the mission needs to be more than altruistic. The food has to be delectable.
“The social mission makes running our business that much harder, in terms of food costs and case management,” says Haust. “But we make sure customers enjoy our product. That’s where we have to be competitive.”
City Seeds incorporates seasonal produce in dishes like caprese salad and a spinach, olive and feta Mediterranean frittata. The power bowl is loaded with kale, quinoa, nuts, chickpeas and egg. The winter grilled salmon entrée has a side of butternut-squash risotto. Local vendors, including School of Food graduates, often provide these ingredients.
As part of its mission, City Seeds promotes made-in-Baltimore products whenever possible, such as Gundalow cold-pressed fruit and vegetable juices. And yes, Maryland crab cakes are usually on the menu, served with Creole remoulade.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the Baltimore Food Hub is its impact on the surrounding community, where the local neighbourhood will finally have green space and access to fresh food.
“We want neighbours to gather here and feel like it’s theirs,” says China Boak Terrell, CEO of American Communities Trust, which developed the site with input from locals.
By summer 2019, the excitement that’s beginning to sprout with City Seeds will hopefully extend to the entire Baltimore Food Hub campus. Terrell envisions neighbours coming to walk their dogs, watch films, pick up a head of lettuce and use the grills.
No longer surrounded by a chain-link fence, the site will truly belong to the community.
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