Charlotte Keniston comes from generations of farmers, but it wasn’t until Keniston spent two and a half years in the Peace Corps that she realized the impact that food would have on her life.
“In Guatemala, each time I went to work with different women’s groups, we would cook, then sit down and eat a meal together,” Keniston says. “It was their rule.” She realized how important that ritual was and how it reinforced a community.
In 2011, soon after returning from her Peace Corps service in Guatemala, Keniston moved to Pigtown to be close to her art studio and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus, where she was working towards her imaging and digital arts Master’s degree.
“My neighbors in Guatemela, while from the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere, had abundant access to healthy food in their backyard gardens,” she says. “Yet in my neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore, in the richest nation in the world, I couldn’t walk to any food sources that sold items such as an apple or carrot.”
She was shocked and motivated. Keniston decided to use her art skills to bring awareness to a critical issue.
That year, she helped launch Pigtown Food for Thought, a grassroots food justice organization. She started by setting up tables to create pop-up grocery stores. She would put up signs that said, “Free, take all that you need,” and quickly met others in the community who also wanted more access to more healthful foods.
But Pigtown Food for Thought wasn’t only about food. After seeing the isolation in the community, Keniston also used the organization to help neighbors connect and interact.
“Food is an essential thing we all need for survival, but it can also be used as opportunity to connect with each other,” she says.
Keniston started to hold community meals in strategic, abandoned places. She would set an elaborate table with a tablecloth, cloth napkins and real forks and plates. She put up flyers to see who would come and sit, eat and talk.
“I learned from my limited time in Pigtown that if you bring food out, people will come, but I was worried no one would want to sit and stay,” Keniston says. “But the dinners went on for hours.”
Soon after, members of Pigtown Food for Thought adopted a vacant lot and began gardening. The garden made real connections possible for neighbors, created lasting friendships and instilled power in people to take control of their own food system.
The organization just finished its third growing season.
Keniston says this fellowship is crucial to the expansion of Pigtown Food for Thought. With the fellowship, she hopes to create three or four more neighborhood gardens.
Along with the program’s partner, Paul’s Place, Pigtown Food for Thought will expand its healthy food mural projects, farmer stands with cooking demos and its food and nutrition curriculum.
Keniston, who has two art degrees, says her focus was originally in photography. But she now has a passion for the art of creating situations where people can interact with each other. She wants kids to look around on their way to school and see fruits and vegetables growing.
“I don’t see problems, I see possibilities,” she says. “I see possibilities in the same way an artist looks at a blank canvas and says ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”