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Baltimore greenhouses spur hope for more farming

BALTIMORE (AP)--Three portable greenhouses outside a Baltimore high school campus provide a model that could be repeated around the city, bringing locally grown food to schoolchildren and to poor neighborhoods where fresh produce is rare, urban farming advocates say.

The plastic-skinned hoop greenhouses are known as Hoop Village, and supporters gathered there earlier this month to celebrate the harvest of its first crops--including arugula, kale, radish, Swiss chard and spinach.

The greens will be provided to the cafeterias at some city elementary schools starting this winter. And students at the three schools on the Lake Clifton campus are helping to raise the food they'll be eating.

"I love my vegetables,'' Michelle Simpson, a Heritage High School senior, told visitors as she showed off the kale and cabbage she helped plant.

Hoop Village is a joint project of two local nonprofits, Safe Healing Foundation and Civic Works. It's also getting funding from the state and city, as well as several foundations and individual donors.

"It's great that food can come out of here and go straight into our cafeterias. Our young people are learning that food does not just come out of a can,'' said Nzinga Oneferua-El, the foundation's executive director and head of the Entrepreneur Training University, a community school on the Lake Clifton campus.

Oneferua-El dreamed up the greenhouse project five years ago, hoping for a place to raise the raw materials used in classes on floral design, wreath-making and other trades. She had planned to renovate a dilapidated greenhouse at Clifton Park but was offered the portable hoop houses instead.

The steel-framed, plastic-clad houses were erected in October with help from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The university also had 56 tons of organic soil trucked to Baltimore to give the vegetables fertile dirt in which to grow.

Along the way, the scale of the project grew. Civic Works, Baltimore's urban service corps, hopes to raise 150,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables annually to serve low-income communities around Clifton Park, where residents lack easy access to supermarkets with extensive fresh produce.

The program also aims to provide jobs in the greenhouses to local residents--especially young people--and teach them skills in agriculture, horticulture and marketing.

"We all know the drug business is accessible here,'' said John Ciekot, project director for Civic Works. "Well, food-raising is accessible, too. They have another career path they can take.''

Ciekot is already fielding requests for portable greenhouses from other city neighborhoods where residents want to try cultivating local produce.

Organizers hope eventually to erect 20 hoop houses in Clifton Park in an unused field near the high school's track. At that scale, they hope the farm can generate enough income to be self-sustaining and allow them to add more paying positions to the operation, which relies heavily on volunteers.

Tony Geraci, food service director for Baltimore schools, said he's ready to buy produce raised in the greenhouses as part of his push to provide locally produced food to students. As a first step, the greenhouses will supply some produce this winter for 20 elementary schools.

"Our goal is to have one of these at every school,'' he said. "We want to create jobs and bring real food to a region that doesn't have access to it.''

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