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Baltimore Middle School Girls Win $13,000 To Bus Fresh Produce To Food Deserts

Baltimore Middle School Girls Win $13,000 To Bus Fresh Produce To Food Deserts

This school project has big benefits!

Aniya Ponton (14), Ryeona Watson (13), Samahj Chestnut (14) and Logan Reynolds (13), are all eighth graders at New Song Academy in Baltimore, Maryland. Last October, the girls began working with their school to develop a community project in partnership with Philanthropy Tank, a nonprofit offering funding for students in grades eight through 11 interested in developing initiatives that will serve their community, The Baltimore Banner reports. Focused on issues most pertinent to their West Baltimore neighborhood, the group came up with “Bmore Fresh,” an initiative aimed at combating food deserts in the city. 

According to a 2018 Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future report, about 1 in 4 Baltimore residents live in food deserts, cut off from access to healthy food and produce. The areas exist primarily in East and West Baltimore and disproportionately impact Black residents. According to the report, nearly 32% of Black Baltimore residents live in a food desert, in comparison to only 11% of Hispanic residents and 9% of white residents in the same city. In contrast, another report conducted by Johns Hopkins in 2021 shows that of the 104 tested farms and gardens in Baltimore city, all of them were safe for growing and consuming produce, completely free of metal contamination in soil. 

The girls’ project hopes to bridge these two realities, using renovated city buses to bring fresh food directly to the city’s doorsteps. The  buses will feature shelves, refrigerators and a sales system featuring iPads and card readers. Once completed, the bus will travel to neighborhoods in need to deliver fresh produce. Their goal is “to help other people that couldn’t get to markets,” something they said they related to personally. 

“We all had a way to relate to the situation. We all had a problem with our food source,” explained Ponton. The girls were one of two New Song Academy groups whose project made it to the final review. The other group unfortunately got nervous and dropped out but these girls persisted, earning $13,000 in funding for their project. Richard McCarter Jr., a New Song alumnus and Baltimore native said this is just the kind of project that the city needs. A former girls basketball coach at the school, McCarter was a key mentor for the girls, making sure they were diligent with completing the project. 

“To attack the obvious problem of it being a food desert, you have to be uncomfortable and fight through it. To see them fight through being scared was great. Especially when it turned out great for them at the end and they were happy…We do have a lot of free farms that are hiding away, people don’t know they are there. You can just walk on, pick what you want and put it in bags and walk off,” said McCarter. 

Philanthropy Tank launched in 2015 and to date, has given out more than $700,000 in funding to over 70 student-led projects in Baltimore and Palm Beach County Florida. Of the developed projects, about 40% of them have become full-fledged nonprofit organizations. Now the girls will work with United Way of Central Maryland to plan out the project logistics, figuring out bus drivers, connections with farms and gardens and the routes and neighborhoods the bus will visit. 

The girls will be transitioning to high school at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School and ConneXions but they will still come together to execute “Bmore Fresh”, with the rollout dates for the bus completely in their hands. For now, planning will begin again at the end of this month so be on the lookout for when the fresh produce bus is coming to a neighborhood near you!

Congratulations ladies! 

Cover photo: Baltimore middle school girls win $13,000 towards combating food deserts in city/(l to r) Samahj Chestnut, Aniya Ponton, & Ryeona Watson/Photo Courtesy of AFRO News