Hunger and History in St. Mary’s County, Maryland

Whenever I think of a food desert, like anyone who has grown up in greater Washington, D.C., the district’s 7th and 8th wards south of the Anacostia River immediately come to mind. This urban neighborhood is one of the most segregated places in our nation’s capital, as well as one with some of the highest food insecurity. But now, attending St. Mary’s College of Maryland in rural southern Maryland, I can say that sometimes the most prominent food insecurity is in your own neighborhood, especially when you look deeply at who really has access to food.

In 2014, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future began compiling data from every Maryland county to complete the Maryland Food System Map It allowed them to take a closer look at food distribution across the state. The Hopkins study showed that food availability in St. Mary’s County is less than stellar, and has left many citizens without access to healthy, affordable food. At the time of the survey, there were 48 food stores for almost 110,000 residents in the county. While this may seem proportional, these food stores are in proximity to one another, leaving many rural and low-income community members without food access. According to the study, 28% of St. Mary’s residents live in a designated limited supermarket access area; almost 13% live in a USDA food desert. That means nearly one in ten citizens in St. Mary’s are considered food insecure according to USDA standards.

As for access to locally sourced, fresh food, the proportion of the population that can enjoy tomatoes or zucchini right from the farm is even smaller. There are only four farm markets in the county, and with the majority of their produce coming from very small farms, they are not particularly accessible, nor are they inexpensive. The result of having little healthy food? Health data for the St. Mary’s community shows that almost a quarter of the county is obese, nearly 10% has been diagnosed with diabetes, and the county has a higher mortality rate from heart disease and diabetes than the rest of the state of Maryland.

To combat this, in 2017, the Rotary Club of Lexington Park, which is in a majority black community, decided to create a system of food pantries and soup kitchens to provide fresh food to the county. To funnel resources from large food networks through the Rotary Club and then on to small, local, food pantries, Lexington Park partnered with the Maryland Food Bank System. This system eventually became known as Feed St. Mary’s and is adding new distribution stations every year.

The Resilience Garden at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where I work, was begun when archeological digs discovered that enslaved people live on what is now college property. The garden is a space devoted to honoring the history of enslaved and indigenous people who worked this land and to cultivating crops and conversation important to the female farmers of the past. The Resilience Garden has chosen has chosen St. Mary’s Cares, a branch of Feed St. Mary’s, to be the recipient of its produce. This is the only full-time soup kitchen in St. Mary’s County, offering community members breakfast and lunch six days a week. St. Mary Cares also facilitates pop-up pantries throughout the county, as well as directly delivering groceries to families in need.

As the days get colder and the harvest season nears its end, the Resilience Garden is ready to harvest the final crops of the growing season. For Thanksgiving, the Garden donated multiple bags of Cherry Belle radishes, collards, carrots, and beets to St. Mary’s Caring. These vegetables not only helped hungry community members; they also revealed the stories of female farmers who have been long forgotten.

Though the Cherry Belle Radish was not developed as a standard variety until the 1940’s, it is very similar to radishes that would have been introduced on the East Coast when Europeans began interacting with Indigenous North Americans. Radishes were among the first crops to be introduced to native people by Christopher Columbus and other European traders in the early 16th century. We also know that radishes were grown by colonial women, as they were written about being planted in gardens as early as 1765. Radishes were very popular since they could be harvested in every season. Thus, they have been the perfect fall crop for the Resilience Garden.

Collard greens are extremely important to the history of Black women in southern states, including southern Maryland. Collards were one of the few foods enslaved individuals were allowed to grow in the small plots they could tend to on the weekends. These were not popular with the Europeans who brought them to North America in the 1600’s, so they left them for enslaved individuals. Collards were such a staple for enslaved people that, after emancipation, women in previously enslaved families continued to grow collards, passing down recipes to future generations. Leafy greens like collards regrow after the initial leaves are harvested; allowing us to use a plant multiple times in the Resilience Garden.

Carrots were first introduced to the Indigenous women of North America by European voyagers even before the Mayflower arrived in America. There is evidence of carrots being brought to the Chesapeake region and then being grown by women in home gardens as well as by Indigenous groups in the Chesapeake Bay area. Dutch Mennonite women also brought them from Europe to grow in their Northeastern gardens.

The beet was brought to the Americas from Europe by settlers and was quickly introduced to early American gardens. They were popular by the early 1800’s and were even experimented with by George Washington. Since beets are an easily grown root vegetable, they were grown by enslaved Americans in small gardens they tended on weekends. European-American women who grew them in personal gardens used them for rogue. Though they are mainly used for cooking today, they are grown in the Resilience Garden to honor the many different women who utilized their versatile nature.

Before food insecurity can be fixed on a large scale, such as for all D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, it is imperative that we focus our attention on struggling individuals in our own, small communities. The Resilience Garden at St. Mary’s College of Maryland hopes to do just that, while bringing attention to the local history of women and the food they grew. Since we cannot go back in time and change how female growers were treated and perceived, the least we can do today is help the many people in our own area who suffer from food insecurity, poor nutrition and health.

— Lily Riesett

RCC Fellow – Lily Riesett – St. Mary’s College of Maryland

RCC Fellow Lily Riesett is a junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland majoring in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Studies. She is interested in environmental justice and is passionate about educating and serving historically excluded communities. On campus, Lily is the managing editor of her school paper, The Point News, the secretary of the Student Government Association, and a founder of the Resilience Garden.

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