As a life-long resident of Sandtown-Winchester, Ausar Daniels often found that the social, economic and political conditions surrounding his neighborhood weren’t conducive to healthy living.
Sandtown-Winchester – thrust into the spotlight after Freddie Gray’s death – has long been home to the worst living conditions in Baltimore. And as one of the many food deserts in the city, people living in Sandtown-Winchester and neighboring community Greater Mondawmin lack access to healthy, affordable food, causing alarmingly high rates of heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes.
But food insecurity affects more than just health. “There is a clear connection between food security and a sustainable, stable community,” says Daniels.
To combat food insecurity and its negative effects, Daniels, 35, started The Greater Mondawmin Empowerment Project (GMEP). In partnership with Tubman House Urban Farm – a community center, urban farm and safe zone located in the Gilmor Homes housing project – GMEP will facilitate free workshops on urban agriculture, culinary arts and wellness. Workshops will cover a wide range of urban agriculture topics, from composting and pollination to creating a self-watering garden.
“Food access is a right, not a privilege. If you can’t afford organic, healthy food, then grow it. Not only will that give people marketable skills, but it gives them access to nutrition. This is the most practical and sustainable solution to food insecurity,” says Daniels.
With the help of volunteers, GMEP will also create two additional plots of farming land at Gilmor Homes. The majority of crops will be washed, bundled and distributed to members of the community, while others will be sold at farm stands. All the profits will be invested into GMEP and allocated towards maintaining and improving gardening infrastructure.
During the winter months, GMEP will continue food production in a biocellar, a new, popular tool in urban agriculture. Biocellars are built from unsalvageable abandoned homes by carefully tearing them down, reinforcing the existing basement and topping it with a slanted, greenhouse-like roof. This greenhouse-like space creates a rich environment for crops to grow even in the harshest of winters.
Through combating food insecurity, GMEP seeks to alleviate socioeconomic disparities in the Sandtown-Winchester and Greater Mondawmin neighborhoods, address public health concerns, increase job security and build an empowered community.
Daniels’ love for agriculture and nutrition run deep. Daniels’s father was an herbalist, introducing Daniels to the healing nature of food early on. “I used history and life experiences as my teacher,” says Daniels. “There’s a rich culture in how and what we used to eat. I think there’s something important there that we can learn from.”
“I see GMEP as a vehicle for these communities to work together to collectively solve problems. Together we can become more self-sufficient and significantly raise our quality of life,” he says.
Daniels is excited to work on GMEP full time and grow a collaborative network. “I can fill my time with research and dedicate everything I have to this project,” says Daniels. “The work we’re doing through this fellowship is going to make a real difference in these neighborhoods.”