From a young age, Eric Jackson knew social work was his life’s work.
“My grandma was the first ‘social worker’ in my life,” Jackson says. “She helped the community no matter what that meant. And she encouraged me to always do the same. It just stuck.”
Jackson is a life-long resident of Cherry Hill, one of Baltimore’s many food deserts. For his family and those in his community, finding healthy, affordable food is difficult.
“In Cherry Hill there’s a three mile travel distance between residences and a full-service grocery store. None of the retailers or restaurants sell healthy food,” says Jackson, adding that three miles isn’t a long distance when you have a car, but it becomes a point of inequity when relying on public transportation. “In Charles Village you can walk to the grocery store. When you rely on the bus or an Uber though, that’s more money towards getting food. It adds to the complexity significantly.”
In a food desert, it is also difficult to find culturally appropriate foods that appeal to people’s tastes and traditions. In Cherry Hill and nearby Poppleton, corner stores don’t stock many fresh foods, let alone ones that are used in traditional African American cooking. “Foods that black people traditionally have eaten or eat during celebrations are not generally available,” Jackson says. “These foods include collard greens, cassava leaf, sweet potato greens, callaloo, sorghum, fish pepper and okra.”
As an OSI-Baltimore fellow, Jackson, 31, will organize two community-controlled cooperative food ventures in Cherry Hill and Poppleton, creating a community-oriented, self-determined solution to food insecurity and its effects. The Building Black Land and Food Sovereignty Practice – through the Black Yield Institute – aims to improve residents’ quality of life, develop black, indigenous leaders and create a self-sustaining community.
Food for the co-op will be purchased wholesale through black-led, community-based organizations such as the Black Church Food Security Network, Black Dirt Farm Collective and Farm Alliance of Baltimore. To ensure the cultural appropriateness of the food, Jackson surveyed each community. “I went door to door and asked families what they regularly buy. Most families eat rice, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, bread, eggs and milk so those will be the first items bought for the co-op,” says Jackson.
Each month, co-op members will pay $20-25 and receive $15-17 worth of food. Jackson suspects there will be a minimum of 100 co-op members in Cherry Hill and 25 members in Poppleton. Food will be distributed at least twice a month at central locations throughout the communities with delivery available to those who cannot travel.
Through alleviating food insecurity in Cherry Hill and Poppleton, residents will also see positive economic development, political and social action, spiritual and psychological healing and cultural affirmation, says Jackson. “It’s not enough to improve access to food if we don’t change the power dynamic in Baltimore. This project is a tool to promote and expand self-determination and self-sufficiency for black people in our neighborhoods.”
In the past, there have been efforts to bring in a grocery store and organize food-distributions, but those efforts haven’t been sustainable, Jackson says. Creating a sustainable model for food attainment and distribution is key. Jackson believes the Building Black Land and Food Sovereignty Practice can remain sustainable indefinitely, because this model has worked before; the practice is modeled after the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network – a successful network addressing food insecurity in Detroit’s black communities since 2006.
“This Fellowship allows me to continue and expand work that was already in motion. It also allows me to prove to people of African descent that there is a reputable model for changing how we achieve food stability in Baltimore city. Food security isn’t just a good idea, it will soon be the reality for these neighborhoods.”