A 1.5-acre fenced-in plot of land in the heart of South Baltimore’s isolated Cherry Hill neighborhood currently lies barren, its fields exhausted from growing nearly 3,200 pounds of crops for a community marked by disinvestment and a lack of access to healthy food.
After serving the surrounding neighborhoods for over a decade, Black Yield Institute’s Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden will no longer provide vine-ripened tomatoes, kale, squash, or other fresh, affordable, and culturally relevant food to nearby neighborhoods lacking a grocery store. In June, city officials served the garden with an immediate eviction order for occupying government land without permission.
Neighborhood residents, those the garden fed, and the farm’s supporters rallied behind Black Yield Institute, which administers the space and aims to build food sovereignty. They won a six-month reprieve so crops could be harvested and the Black-led grassroots organization could find an alternative space. This has so far proved elusive.
Cherry Hill native Eric Jackson, 35, founder and servant-director of Black Yield Institute, along with other community members, was angered and perplexed when the Housing Authority of Baltimore City issued an order to vacate the garden, despite Black Yield’s work fighting hunger in the community and their ongoing negotiations with the agency.
“We’ve been talking to you, and you send us a yellow and a pink slip. Where is the dignity?” says Jackson.
Officials said they needed to secure the land to build affordable housing, but wouldn’t give a timeline for its construction, leading many to conclude the land would remain vacant for years. The eviction threat underscores the challenges that face those who work to empower communities that have been denied opportunities to accumulate financial resources.
Black Yield’s efforts to fight hunger were widely recognized before the pandemic, and when COVID-19 caused hunger to spike, the organization sprang into action. Jackson partnered with local activists and city officials to distribute emergency meals and fresh produce to those in need—especially youth who regularly receive free meals at schools that were forced to close.
Black Yield Institute describes itself as a “Pan-African power institution … serving as a think tank and collective action network.” The group’s mission is to build Black community power through food sovereignty. Jackson defines this as building a movement that seeks to accumulate necessary land and capital to “get Black people at the center and at the decision being made around food.”
Black farmers have long faced racial discrimination from local, state, and federal authorities, losing 90% of their land between 1910 and 1997. As a member of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Black Yield is one of the hundreds of Black urban and rural growers that are collectively working toward food sovereignty.
Since launching on an unused city lot in 2010, the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden has distributed approximately 150,000 pounds of healthy food and produce to an area officially deemed a “food desert.” It is also an area where the median income is only $22,000, 57% of the population lives in poverty, and life expectancy is 20 years lower than in wealthier areas of Baltimore, according to Baltimore City Health Department data.
Rather than viewing Cherry Hill as a food desert, Jackson prefers to think of its condition in terms of “food apartheid.” The lack of access to food in Cherry Hill is not accidental, Jackson argues. It is the result of decades of segregation and disinvestment.
“Race- and class-based oppression that impacts access to and power of our food economy, and land resources … ultimately results in poor people and poor communities,” says Jackson.
Back in June, HABC first ordered Black Yield to vacate the garden because it lacked permission to use the space. After the community organized to save the valuable resource, Mayor Brandon Scott interjected, organizing a meeting between Black Yield and HABC a month later. After hundreds attended a July 2 rally at the farm and over 64,000 people signed a Change.org petition supporting Black Yield’s call for HABC to postpone the eviction, the agency agreed to delay the order until the end of 2021.
For now, Black Yield will continue its mission to provide healthy food to the community through two projects that operate independently of the garden: the Cherry Hill Marketplace sells fresh produce from Black and local food providers; and POP Delivery partners with Restoring Inner City Hope to employ local youth to deliver fresh produce directly to residents.
Jackson says the eviction threat by HABC also accelerated the organization’s plan to increase its production through bigger farming and food distribution efforts. Along with seeking a new space in the community that will allow for ongoing local food production, Black Yield is currently seeking to obtain a 10-or-more-acre farm in a county surrounding Baltimore City to allow Black Yield to dramatically scale up production.
The group is also in the third year of developing the Cherry Hill Food Co-op, which will serve as the area’s only grocery store. Over 1,200 local residents have pledged to become member-owners when the store opens.
“To see Black Yield at the forefront of a food equity movement, where people will be co-owners, to me is both the wealth creation for Black communities but also the opportunity for food to be a vehicle for liberation,” says Nicole Fabricant, an activist and professor of anthropology at Towson University.
Fabricant says the garden has also served as an opportunity for local youth and area college students to engage with urban gardening. During the pandemic, she co-taught eight of her students about how to care for the land with Black Yield’s farm manager, Myeasha Taylor. Four of Fabricant’s students also took part in the Sankara-Hamer Academy, Black Yield’s 15-week political education program, which is taught by Jackson.
“Boots on the ground, hands in the soil, that’s like the way I describe my teaching philosophy,” says Fabricant.
One of Black Yield’s biggest remaining challenges is to raise capital for its expansion plans. In total, Jackson says the three projects—a new local community garden, a large-scale farm, and a food co-op—will require an estimated $7.5 million dollars. The group is currently seeking investors, donors, and loans to reach this goal.
When dozens of residents and activists held a final gathering at the Cherry Hill Garden on Nov. 5, they did not mourn the loss of their urban farm. Instead, they used live music, dancing, and art to celebrate the promise of far larger opportunities for community-oriented control of land ownership.
“What we typically see in our communities in South Baltimore is when good things are developed, they’re stripped away,” says Meleny Thomas, 36, who frequently purchased food at the garden and is executive director of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust. “But I know that this is just the beginning of something even greater than what they’ve been able to do to this space.”
Jaisal Noor is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network. He was previously a senior producer at the Real News Network and has spent a dozen years reporting on politics, housing, public education and criminal justice for outlets such as The Atlantic, Democracy Now!, The Real News Network, The Baltimore Beat, The Progressive Magazine and Yes! Magazine. He holds a degree from the University of Maryland, College Park.