Corps Story: Adapting to Change – Civic Works’ Real Food Farm Helps Its Community in a Major Way

This fall, The Corps Network is featuring Corps stories around the theme of “harvest season.” These stories demonstrate Corps helping address food insecurity.

During the more than 10 years since Civic Works developed their Real Food Farm program, they have grown over 60,000 pounds of food and educated over 3,000 people about local agriculture.

Hoping to top last year’s goal of 5,000 pounds of fresh local produce distributed to 8 communities in Baltimore, Civic Works looked forward to another year of expanding their assistance to those with limited access to fresh and affordable produce.

However, three months into 2020, Civic Works faced the challenge of operating under COVID-19 safety precautions. They considered how to safely continue providing food assistance to residents who were abiding by stay-at-home orders and social distancing practices.

Operating out of two locations in Northeast Baltimore, the Real Food Farm is funded through The Corps Network’s AmeriCorps Opportunity Youth Service Initiative (OYSI), as well as through other partnerships with various local agencies and organizations. AmeriCorps members do the bulk of the work on the farm, from planting to harvesting.

Prior to COVID-19, AmeriCorps members normally distributed fresh produce through farmers’ markets and with their “mobile market” – a delivery truck that creates a pop-up market in communities with limited access to fresh food. The farm’s harvest – including corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and more – is normally given away for free or sold for a nominal cost. During the stay-at-home order period, however, Civic Works realized that the population most impacted were older adults who might not have the support or means to leave the house for food.

The Real Food Farm collaborated with Civic Works’ Elder Services Program. This program has two branches designed to assist older adults: Cities for All Ages and Housing Upgrades to Benefit Seniors (HUBS). The Cities for All Ages service helps older adults make minor home repairs – like installing handrails, ramps, or bathroom aids – to help them live safely at home and age in place. The HUBS program helps residents make more significant home repairs by providing homeowners a case manager that can assist them with accessing grants and low-interest loans for major home repairs like a new roof, replacement windows, etc.

When coronavirus hit the United States, and it was first announced that older adults are the most at risk demographic, Civic Works temporarily suspended these services. However, they realized they could continue serving this population through food assistance.

AmeriCorps members packed food bags every Wednesday and delivered food to residents on Thursdays and Fridays. In order to meet the high demand, Civic Works delivered the produce packages using the mobile market delivery truck, the work vans that normally would’ve been used to do home repairs for the Elder Services Program, and other volunteers. Throughout the summer, the Real Food Farm also partnered with local catering companies and businesses to help make sure food was not going to waste, but rather would be delivered to people who needed it the most. As of September 30, Civic Works has distributed over 90,000 pounds of produce/meals, serving more than 9,200 individuals.

In addition to providing nutrition assistance, and in an effort to assist older adults who were still confined to their homes during the summer, Civic Works received a grant from the City of Baltimore to deliver fans and air conditioners to residents who requested them. Civic Works also offered pick-up sites for those items.

All through this time, Civic Works continued operations while following new COVID-19 safety protocols. Among other measures, both Real Food Farm locations required AmeriCorps members to perform daily temperature checks and answer health screen questions.

Now in the fall season and still operating under COVID-19 safety precautions, Civic Works recently finished up its last donations of fans and air conditioner units to citizens. They have also scaled back on the free food assistance program, downsizing to delivering food in only the mobile market delivery truck. The produce boxes are now delivered in a Community Supported Agriculture-style (CSA) for a nominal fee. The Elder Services Program is back operating, assisting older adults with minor home repairs while following strict social distancing guidelines.

Looking to the future, Civic Works hopes to invest in technology to make the program more efficient and reliable. Civic Works also plans to expand farm operations through maximizing work with partners like Great Kids Farm, an educational farm run by the school district, and other local farms that make up the Farm Alliance of Baltimore.

Thanks to the service of Civic Works’ Real Food Farm AmeriCorps members, many Baltimore residents received much-needed food assistance and friendly faces during these uncertain times.