"We almost died for these greens": A journey through my food desert

Kale on a plate Getty Images/Kilito Chan
Kale on a plate Getty Images/Kilito Chan

Urban farming is changing the world and leaving me more optimistic than my 14-year-old self could ever imagine. I believe easy access to fruits and vegetables will not only heal our bodies but transform our communities in general. 

I say this because I was driving down Whitelock, a block in west Baltimore, a few weeks ago and saw a scrawny kid running up the street with a pillowcase-sized bag of what looked like kale or collards or something. He was in a black Nike Tech suit and some semi-laced Jordan 4s. “Shorty, hey kid,” I yelled to the spindly boy through my driver-side window. “What’s up?” 

The kid shot me a confused look before he spat, “What you need OG?” 

“I’m not trying to be funny, but where you get those vegetables from?” 

He pointed down the block to a place called Whitelock Community Farm

I Googled the spot, came across their Instagram and found a glorious collection of images of beautiful Black people growing fruits and vegetables. “I wonder why we didn't have this when I was coming up?” I thought to myself. 

Initially, I wanted to roll up on them to buy a big bag of greens like the kid had, or grapes, or something, but I had so much running around to do and wasn't sure of when I would make it back to the house to put the groceries away. So I called my boy Dro, who started his health kick before me to put him on with Whitelock. “Yo, I’m over west,” I say. “They have a farm for the people around there. What east Baltimore have?” 

“Dummy, I been buying local vegetables for like two years over east and west,” Dro laughed. “We got options now, Watkins. This ain’t 1995, wake up!” 

“I see.”

“We deserve to have these goodies in reach, bro. Remember, we almost died for these greens!” 

I laughed as we got off the phone. I have been traveling constantly over the past 10 years and may have overlooked some of the local developments. I was well aware of the two farmers markets held every Saturday and Sunday in Baltimore as they are my favorite spots — not just for vegetables, but to eat like a pig when I can. However, farms popping up in the middle of the neighborhoods is a development that's new to me. 


Dro and I were trying to get in basketball shape: lean, bony and fast. And to do this we knew we had to cut out the fried foods from our beloved sub shops — the chicken boxes, the mozzarella sticks, the crunchy-crunchy onion rings — and incorporate more disgusting green vegetables and salads into our diets. 

We did not know that salads were delicious. We were just living in the Sahara of food deserts, only coming across lettuce and tomatoes when they morphed into soggy assets on our chicken cheese steaks. And honestly, if the sub shop was out of lettuce and tomatoes, and just gave us damp heroes packed with greasy meat, we would scarf them down anyway. 

“Bro, Rocky Stallone the Italian Stallion cracks an egg and drink that s**t,” Dro told me at the beginning of this journey. “Yeah, all protein, good for muscle.” 

“Man, yuck. Does frying the egg take the protein out?” I asked. “'Cause eating an egg is eating an egg right? Why it got to be raw? I mean, Rocky ate the egg and lost to Apollo right?” 

Dro laughed and said we could cook them, which was a huge step in the right direction for us. Breakfast used to be Lemonheads, Jolly Ranchers, Nerds, Boston Baked Beans, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and Butter Crunch cookies, all washed down by Sprite or Pepsi or Brisk Iced Tea. 

Yes, we ate like this, and our parents ate like this, and high blood pressure and high cholesterol and diabetes spread through our neighborhood like mustard. We only came across vegetables that came in cans. They lost all their firmness, were drenched in dangerous preservatives and were always cooked with meat for flavor, so they weren’t really vegetables anymore by the time they made it to our plates. This would not get us our desired results. 

“Fried or raw eggs ain’t gonna do it man, we need proper guidance,” I told Dro. “We need to talk to Otis.” 

“Good luck with that…” 

Otis, who was about five years older than us, was easily the most ripped guy in the neighborhood, especially after he spent three years in the youth jail. We had to holler at him for the kind of advice we needed to get our bodies right. Otis used to be nice in basketball, too, everything we wanted to be, but he could never stay in school. He was always kicked out for fighting or missing class. Otis dropped out in the seventh grade and had been hustling outside of the sub shop ever since.

Dro wasn’t trying to talk to Otis. He didn’t really like mixing in with dealers, so I went solo.  

Otis was on the block carrying on two conversations: One with a dude around his age and another with a pretty girl who seemed to smile at everything he said. We locked eyes. 

“Shorty, what you up here for, who you lookin’ for?” he asked. I looked around, making sure he was talking to me. Otis ran the block and didn’t have a lot of time for childish games, so I went right in. 

“Looking for you,” I said. Perplexed, Otis asked his audience to give him a second and pointed to the alley. 

“Step into my office,” he said, walking off, pulling a thin blunt from behind his ear and sparking it. I followed him into the alley. “What you need from me, shorty?”

“Sorry to bother, man, but I want to dunk by the end of summer and make varsity as a freshman,” I said. “I need to get cut up like you.” 

Otis blew smoke out of his nose, admiring his own muscular arms. “I used to be bigger, I need to get back on the pull-up bar,” Otis laughed. 

He continued: “Shorty, stop sipping alcohol, beer and all that. I be seeing you. That’s one. Two, you need to eat raw vegetables, nothing cooked. Do that, try to do 50 pull-ups and 100 push-ups a day and you be cut like a bag of dope by August. Easy money. No drink, fresh food.” 

I thanked Otis and blasted back to Dro with the information. Our only problem was finding the salads. 

“Super Pride got salad ingredients, but no salad bar,” Dro said. "We need a salad bar.” 

“Why we need a salad bar?” I asked. “Can’t we just make them ourselves?” 

“Nah bro, I been to a salad bar with my mother,” he said. “They have meat and like 10 dressings and lil jalapeños and croutons and bacon bits and all that.” 

Dro said this magic place was Santoni’s in Highlandtown, about a mile and a half from where we lived. 

“That’s far!” 

“This is for our future!” Dro said. 

That mile meant we had to cross three different neighborhoods — including a sworn rival, even though we weren’t really into street politics — and pass about four sub shops (the equivalent of five-star restaurants, from our inexperienced perspective) to venture into Highlandtown, a place full of the most racist police officers in the city at that time. 

Highlandtown used to be a white neighborhood and then it turned Black, which upset the remaining white people. So some of those remaining white people, mostly men, became cops and found joy in clubbing the new and visiting Black people occupying their space. 

But we wanted to dunk. We needed those damn salads. 

Our first few trips were smooth. We made it to Santoni’s unscathed and loaded our salads up with so much meat and cheese and ranch and honey mustard that it didn’t feel like eating boring vegetables. It was delicious — maybe because I didn’t leave much space for the vegetables. 

On one trip a gun went off, and even though I don’t think it was for us, I wasn’t trying to find out, so I dropped my salad and blasted out of there. “You think that was a gun or a loud firecracker?” Dro asked. 

“You want to find out?” I replied. 

“Hell no!” 

Dro and I beat a guy's ass on another trip. His name was Black Kenny; he had an older brother named Calvin who shot Dro’s older brother a few years earlier, leaving him in a wheelchair. There was also a trip where the two of us got stopped out by like 30 kids, but strangely, Dro held onto his salad and we split. 

My favorite trip involved us getting chased all the way to Fayette Street where Crazy Ronald, who was like an uncle to us, spotted us in danger, whipped out a chainsaw — please don’t ask me where he got a chainsaw — and chased the guys who were chasing us, yelling, “Y’all look like my lunchhhh and I’m hungry!” (Disclaimer: No one was sawed in half or became a victim of cannibalism.) 

I must admit that the running and fighting on these trips, not to mention the related anxiety, made us quicker and leaner, but after a few weeks, we realized the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. Death should never be a consequence of venturing off to buy a salad. 

Otis caught me on the block enjoying one of my salads toward the end of that journey, looked at my high-calorie concoction and burst into laughter. “What?” I asked. 

“Let me see what you working with, shorty,” he said, taking my plate away. “Yo, all this weird pink-colored meat, cheese and ranch. This ain’t no salad, it’s a heart attack.” 

“I don’t eat ham,” I shot back. “It’s turkey ham!” 

Otis laughed harder. “Ain’t no such thing as turkey ham!”

I had no idea. All that risk and I was doing it wrong. But honestly, we both knew we went OD on the extras. I mean, risking so much to get those salads deserved a reward, right?

These new kids will never know what it’s like to get your head busted over some lettuce, and I’m thankful for that. 

Seeing that kid run up the block with that sack of kale was wild inspiring. I hope urban farming continues to grow. I know Dro and I will always support it because, like he said, “We almost died for these greens!”