Finding Warmth at Big City Farms
- by Sea Sloat
Although the morning of my first field trip to a Farm to Fork vendor was a brisk 29 degrees, I couldn’t have hoped for a warmer experience — one that brought many of Bon Appétit’s values to life.
I tagged along for the visit to Big City Farms with a Johns Hopkins University inter-session class on the food system, taught by a Hopkins grad and founder of the Real Food Challenge JHU, Raychel Santo. She and 10 students braved the cold to see where their greens come from. A few folks from the Bon Appétit team at Johns Hopkins joined as well! I met General Manager Ty Paup, Resident District Manager Vince Mcphail, and JHU Dining Director Bill Connor and reconnected with Marketing Manager Jeff Vigilante.
Big City Farms is a four-year-old urban farming operation “planted” on an asphalt lot in southwest Baltimore. With six hoop houses and 10 employees, they grow greens year round (mostly for salad mixes, plus some kale and fennel). There are no raised beds or heat lamps. Everything is planted in the ground where the asphalt has been removed, in 100% compost, and separated from the ground soil with a fabric barrier for top nutrient protection. Plants rely solely for warmth on the sun that warms the air inside the hoop houses, and white tarp “blankets” holding it in the soil. I am still surprised that all the plants weren’t completely frozen (as most of the students were)!
“You guys have been really great — sticking with us through ups and downs, having supply and not having supply. All the chefs that I’m dealing with, they’re all invested in it. So, just keep buying it!”
As our guide, farmer Rob Dunn, told us Big City Farms’ story, I couldn’t help but hum the Lion King’s “The Circle of Life” to myself. Rob graduated from Hopkins in the ’80s, and eventually found his way back to Baltimore to join Big City Farms and grow food for his alma mater. Students were surprised to hear that their lettuce was being grown in compost from a facility that processes Johns Hopkins’ food waste.
The synchronicity between Bon Appétit’s sustainability mission and Big City Farms’ philosophy was just too perfect. Rob spoke passionately about staying true to the principles of community and social justice, by supporting the local economy via paying employees a fair wage, and maintaining strong relationships with their clients (our mutual client Goucher College, just 25 minutes away, being the absolute farthest they will deliver to).
At the end of the tour, Vince asked if there was anything Bon Appétit could do to be a better partner. Rob’s response was a satisfying one: “No, you guys have been really great — sticking with us through ups and downs, having supply and not having supply. All the chefs that I’m dealing with, they’re all invested in it. So, just keep buying it!”
The following Saturday, I ran into Rob selling salad mix at my local farmers’ market. I must have passed the Big City Farms booth a few dozen times since I began to frequent the Waverly Farmers’ Market in Baltimore, but this time I had a deeper appreciation for the greens that had miraculously sprouted from nearly frozen earth. I plan to follow Rob’s advice and “just keep buying it,” because man, was that lettuce delicious.