Five growers of color from Maryland were awarded a combined $72,000 in grant funding to expand access to resources and improve the long-term health of all people in Maryland.

The funding was received through the American Heart Association's EmPOWERED to Serve Business Accelerator™ – Maryland Black Farmers, supported by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

Since November, participants received training in business and brand storytelling, worked with a cohort of other Maryland Black farmers, and on Wednesday, Feb. 7, shared their stories at an in-person Finale event before a panel of local business leaders.

Geb-ra Organics, a startup that aims to build an Aquaponics farming complex in Baltimore using recycled shipping containers with a public and private school system training program, won first place and $35,000 in grant funding.



"Geb-ra Organics attacks food insecurity and energy generation simultaneously," said founder Ali Simeto, who has a background as a certified solar installer, climate change activist, and designer.

"I'm very proud I had a chance to be part of the EmPOWERED to Serve Business Accelerator™, being with people that have the same kind of mentality and want to do good in the world," he added.

The following finalists also received funding through the accelerator.

  • Crystal Levine of CodaBax received $25,000.
  • Ashley Drakeford of The Capital Market received $10,000.
  • The Francis family of Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm and Doug Adams of New Brooklyn Farms each received a $1,000 stipend for participating in the accelerator.

Through the EmPOWERED to Serve Business Accelerator™ – Maryland Black Farmers, the American Heart Association and CareFirst seek to reduce the disparity of Black farmers' representation and economic participation in Maryland's agriculture sector, increase economic opportunity for Black farmers in the state, and improve access to healthy food.

"Access to food is a critical social determinant of health and has been directly correlated with increased prevalence of chronic health conditions, including heart disease and diabetes," said Kimberly Mays, Vice President of Community Impact for the American Heart Association, Baltimore and Greater Maryland division.

"Our hope is that the exposure and grant funding these five finalists have received through the EmPOWERED to Serve program will allow them to continue to grow and scale their businesses and increase access to healthy food, particularly in healthy food priority areas in the state," she added.

The accelerator event would not have been possible without support from CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, Mays said.

"At CareFirst, we seek meaningful opportunities to advance healthy outcomes for everyone, and we know our health is mostly impacted by what happens outside of clinical settings," said Lester Davis, Vice President and Chief of Staff for CareFirst.

"That's why we're here with the American Heart Association, addressing health challenges at the source. By empowering the people who grow our food with the skills to cultivate their businesses, we can create opportunities to provide our community with healthy food and economically support those who grow it," Davis said.

The EmPOWERED to Serve Business Accelerator™ – Maryland Black Farmers seeks to not only address physical health through nutritious food, it also intends to create economic opportunities for underserved and under-resourced areas throughout the region.

"The American Heart Association is committed to driving equitable health, and lack of access to food directly impacts that," said Larry L. Johnson, chairman of the American Heart Association Baltimore & Greater Maryland Division Board of Directors.

"By supporting and investing in Black farmers in Maryland, we are helping to create business solutions to the social and economic challenges facing the communities we serve and increase access to healthy foods, improving the long-term health of all people in Maryland."

Johnson was one of the three judges for the business accelerator finale. Dekonti Mends-Cole, Head of DE&I for Corporate Responsibility at JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Janet Currie, President of Bank of America Greater Maryland and the Market Executive for the Local Markets Organization, joined him at the judge's desk.

The EmPOWERED to Serve Business Accelerator™ is a national American Heart Association program that provides social entrepreneurs, startups and businesses focusing on health impact the tools and support to grow and scale. Through this opportunity, the Association provides business training, grants, and a lasting connection to the organization.

Source: heart.org