A group of eighth grade girls from Baltimore have a new idea to bring fresh food to your door: a bus that parks in your neighborhood, chock full of locally farmed dinosaur kale, berries, cabbages and squash. Are you buying?
New Song Academy students Aniya Ponton, 14; Ryeona Watson, 13; Samahj Chestnut, 14; and Logan Reynolds, 13, have been awarded $13,000 to fund their project, called Bmore Fresh, a renovated city bus equipped with shelves, refrigerators and a point-of-service sales system that travels to food desert areas of Baltimore. Their mission, they said, is “to help other people that couldn’t get to markets.”
Their school is in Sandtown-Winchester, a neighborhood where residents may find it difficult to get fresh fruits and veggies.
“We all had a way to relate to the situation,” Ponton said. “We all had a problem with our food source.”
The girls have been developing the project since the middle of October as part of a partnership between New Song Academy and Philanthropy Tank, a nonprofit organization that encourages students in grades eight through 11 to apply for funding for projects that will serve their communities.
According to the group’s website, it has awarded over $700,000 in funding for over 70 student-led projects in Palm Beach County, Florida, and Baltimore since 2015. Of those projects, 40% have become nonprofit organizations.
Two New Song Academy groups, including Bmore Fresh, made it to the final review, where judges from Philanthropy Tank decided how much funding the students would receive. The other group dropped out of the final review because they were nervous.
Over the months, the girls worked with school staff to discuss components of the project, like overhead shelving, refrigeration, an iPad for payments, card readers and which areas of the city the bus should visit.
Richard McCarter Jr., an alumnus of the school who has also coached the girls in basketball, was a guiding light, they said. Chestnut said he “made sure that we stayed on top of what we had to do, and made sure we felt comfortable.”
McCarter has lived two blocks away from the school for most of his life and is now a coach, art teacher and student mentor there.
“To attack the obvious problem of it being a food desert, you have to be uncomfortable and fight through it,” McCarter said. “To see them fight through being scared was great. Especially when it turned out great for them at the end and they were happy.”
According to a 2018 report from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, about 1 in 4 Baltimore residents live in areas with sparse access to healthy, fresh produce. Such areas, called food deserts or “healthy food priority areas,” are scattered all across the city, predominantly in East and West Baltimore, and disproportionately affect Black residents.
The report states that 32% of Black Baltimoreans live in one, compared to 11% of Hispanic residents and 9% of white residents.
The university also released a report in 2021 that assessed metal contamination in soil, irrigation water and produce, and found that nearly all of 104 tested farms and gardens in Baltimore City were safe for growing and consuming produce.
McCarter, who has recently transitioned to a vegetarian diet, believes that local farms are a key to improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and believes the girls’ mission will inform people about how many urban gardens are right here in the city — some of which let people harvest their own food for free.
“We do have a lot of free farms that are hiding away, people don’t know they are there,” he said. “You can just walk on, pick what you want and put it in bags and walk off.”
Shae McCoy, a full-time worker at Strength to Love Farm in Sandtown, said that farms like hers can be a huge support for residents in areas lacking fresh food.
“A huge misconception is that fresh food is higher [more expensive] than getting carryout food,” McCoy said. From her experience growing up in poverty in the Poppleton neighborhood, she said, “buying food that’s restaurant prepared is much more expensive than buying fresh food, even in the organic aspect.”
Jayson Green, the executive director of the school, said that the girls’ next steps are to meet with Beth Littrell, a mentor from nonprofit organization United Way of Central Maryland, later this month to plan the logistics of the project, like bus drivers, connection with farms and gardens, and which areas of the city will be served.
Nakeia Jones, chief program officer at Philanthropy Tank, said that the tentative dates for when the bus will roll out will be dependent on the girls’ plans, and planning will begin at the end of the month.
The girls will work with Littrell on implementing the project while they transition to high school at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School and ConneXions: A Community Based Arts School.