To get his father, grandmother, and himself food for the week, Mike Webb, 22, walks to and from the grocery store. His 10-minute walk to the nearest store limits the amount of food he can buy, and his list is cut down roughly half of the time.
“I won’t get a ham or a turkey because they’re too heavy to carry,” explained Mike. Born and raised in Baltimore City,, he knows firsthand the struggles that come from living in a food desert.
To get his family’s needs, Mike goes to the Great Valu, a smaller supermarket compared to the large Giant or Safeway chains. But necessities force him to venture to closer corner stores. “I go to convenience stores for milk or bread, if we need it,” said Mike.
As convenient as they are, the corner stores are not helpful for Mike and his dad. Both try to be as healthy as they can. Mike’s father has diabetes and high blood pressure, so healthiness is a must. Mike, a former athlete, enjoys eating well, but that means more trips to the grocery store.
Greektown is not formally labeled as a food desert district because it has a slightly-above-poverty income level, but the lack of a conveniently located grocery store gives the impression it is one if you don’t have a car. Mike is one resident who feels that way.
A food desert environment is harmful to a neighborhood because it limits the ability for residents to obtain healthy food. The lack of grocery stores that have a vast array of fresh food and the transportation to get to them is harmful for residents. While the city is aware of the problem, it has been the community members that have been the driving force to provide fresh produce to those needing it.
In a small store on West Patterson Street in downtown Baltimore, Ian Espey and Meghan Haight prepare for the rush of customers trying to gather what little food they can before a winter storm hits. OK Natural Foods, open since 1978, is unique in comparison to other stores. Providing a wide range of food, everything is organic and healthy.
Many would argue that this is not a big achievement, considering within the past decade, healthy organic food has been the latest craze throughout America. However, in the inner city of Baltimore, health is a luxury many can’t not afford let alone gain access to a store that sells it.
While OK Natural Foods is trying to bring healthy eating to the poorer neighborhoods in Baltimore, they still have to keep their prices higher than the general public in food deserts can afford in order to stay in business.
“We’ve seen an increase in healthy eating across different economic groups,” said Haight. “Compared to other stores in the city, our prices are definitely higher, but compared to other health food stores, our prices are comparable or even in less in some cases.”
Despite having a health food store within walking distance, many people who reside in food deserts cannot afford to eat healthy. Health food stores try to appeal to those with lesser incomes, but the need in Baltimore is for supermarkets.
Baltimore City is a collection of neighborhoods that struggle to provide the best quality of life for all. The scarceness of stores with healthy food seems alien to many people who live in communities with a higher income level.
Studies have shown that wealthier districts have three times more supermarkets as poor neighborhoods. It has also been shown in recent studies found on nhi.org that not only do primarily white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets than primarily black neighborhoods do, but they also have a wider and cheaper selection.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an “urban neighborhood … without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.” Residents of these areas tend to shop for groceries at convenience stores, picking up dinner at a fast-food restaurant.
In Baltimore, the Department of Planning defines local food deserts as an area where the closest supermarket is more than ¼ mile away. These neighborhoods are low-income, and residents don’t have easy access to a car; groceries are obtained by walking.
For the one in five Baltimore City residents who live in a food desert, finding fresh healthy food is nearly impossible since the average distance to food store is a quarter of a mile away and 40 percent of the residents in these areas don’t own a car.
“I have students from all over Baltimore that come from all types of households, even the food deserts,” said Baltimore City teacher David Adams. “The kids that live in the food deserts can only really get fried foods because the neighborhoods are so dangerous that the grocery store owners don’t want to risk their lives to open a store. Honestly the fact that they can’t get healthy food is only a small part of what the problem is.”
“We believe that food deserts have come about due to underlying social forces – poverty, education, planning and zoning practices – that created areas without healthy food over time,” said Amanda Behrens, senior program officer at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
The city is aware of the food desert issue, but the true cause is still being debated. Grocery stores, themselves, contribute to the problem. “As they grew larger and consolidated, these stores needed larger, more affluent populations to support them, and thus located in the suburbs of cities,” said Behrens. Large chain supermarkets needed more space to build parking lots, space that urban areas didn’t have.
In Baltimore specifically, Behrens speculates that food deserts are an aftermath of the civil rights race riots that broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time, many grocery store owners were of Jewish or German descent and abandoned their stores after looting and damage from the riots. The stores were never rebuilt causing healthy food holes to appear, and they have never been filled.
Christina Bodison, a volunteer coordinator for the Baltimore Neighborhood Food Advocate program, is originally from South Carolina, but traveled all over growing up. Always having an interest in poverty and health, Bodison has seen similar food access issues in many places.
“In some communities, there isn’t a stable grocery store that offers healthy and sustainable food,” Bodison said.
With the difficulty of finding healthy food, many residents are left with few options. The majority go to the local convenience store, usually occupying the corner spot on their block. These stores sell mostly packaged food and what little healthy food they do sell is too expensive for low-income customers to afford it on a regular basis. A study conducted by the U.S. House of Representatives show that urban residents who shop at small neighborhood groceries pay between three and thirty-seven percent more than their suburban counterparts buying the same products.
While the city is aware of the problem, residents and volunteers have taken it upon themselves to seek a faster solution. Throughout the city, urban farms have started growing in vacant plots.
An urban farm is a plot of land that is used to grow food for the local community for several months of the year. Produce from the farm is sold to residents at a reduced price and sold at local farmers’ markets to help raise money for funding the farm in off months and for future years.
Looking at the property in early February, the Whitelock Community Farm in west Baltimore’s Reservoir Hills neighborhood, it’s hard to believe the land is prosperous in warmer months. Alison Worman, farm manager, has been involved with it since 2011, when she started working there with one of her classes. She became very invested in the farm and continued volunteering at the farm after her class ended. Now she is not only the farm manager, but she is also the only employee in charge of keeping the farm kept up during the dreary winter months.
Urban farms benefit those in the city because the residents of the neighborhood often volunteer to help out with the farming of the plot. This is incredibly beneficial to those who live in the city because it not only teaches them where their food comes from, but also to respect their food and the hard work that goes into growing even the smallest crops.
“The community is very supportive with what we do,” said Warman. “We have many residents that frequently come and volunteer, some come to our farm stand where we sell produce and other just really enjoy seeing the space.”
The urban farms have been proving to be a success in the neighborhoods that they appear in, run by ordinary citizens who want to make a difference in the poorer communities that do not have the same opportunities that the wealthier communities do.
With the urban farms being conveniently located in the poorer neighborhoods the residents can finally afford healthy vegetables. This will hopefully encourage more people to incorporate these healthy ingredients into a balanced meal that has little to no preservatives.
“The city doesn’t help us in any direct way,” said Warmer. “But they don’t have any problems with what we are doing here or prevented us in any way.”
With one in four children living in a food desert in Baltimore, programs like urban farms are not being funded or at least given some government assistance doesn’t look good. Even healthy food stores like OK Natural Foods receive no tax cuts or aid from the government despite being a small business that provides organic and healthy food.
“I think people in Baltimore are doing things about the food problems. I think the city is in fact making it harder…,” said Espey.
Baltimore city is very aware of the problems food deserts cause. Due to the issue, the city created food policy initiatives headed by its Office of Sustainability. When Baltimore hired on its food policy staff, it was one of only nine cities that had established a department to work on food distribution.
The Office of Sustainability is in charge of monitoring and mapping out food deserts in the city limits. It works with the city’s Health Department and Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future to research and determine the best solution for Baltimore.
In 2012, the office released a food desert map, showing where the problem areas were. Currently, the Center for a Livable Future is conducting research to release a new map this year, with more data and comparability to future maps.
Sarah Buzogany, Baltimore’s Food Access Coordinator, stressed the importance of the food desert problem. “It’s a big priority for the mayor,” she said. The Office of Sustainability is spending time focused on the issue but says the solution is bigger than just building a supermarket.
“It’s about creating jobs and building the income level in the area,” said Sarah.
But not much can be done in the city until the new food maps are created. Behrens and the Center for a Livable Future did an examination recently of the available food in Baltimore. They visited every permitted food retailer in the city, including all corner, convenience, organic and grocery stores and evaluating their options for sale.
Does the store sell the basic food groups, such as milk, meats, bread, or fruits? Is there a healthier option available? Behrens’ team asked these questions, and also noted when the stores are open, what type they are, and the demographic information for the area. Using the information gathered, the Center is putting together an updated food desert map that will show all the problem areas of Baltimore.
Behrens and her team works to create the map, but it’s up to Baltimore to use it to generate solutions. One venture that the city has undertaken in an effort to provide healthier food for residents in need is the Baltimarket program. The virtual supermarket project allows residents to visit local libraries or elementary schools and order their weekly groceries online. Those with no vehicles can then pick up their groceries at their local library. Currently, the Baltimarket program is on hold due to the closing of Santoni’s Super Market.
The Baltimore City Health Department is looking for a new grocery store partner and in the meantime, Bodison, as the volunteer coordinator for the program, is working with neighborhood food advocates to educate their communities and support any food project advocates want to work to keep the healthy instruction continuing. “We try to be an active participant in the communities we service,” said Bodison.
After being told a program like the Baltimarket exists, Mike’s eyes lit up. “I would definitely use that,” he said. With a family that struggles with health problems, Mike is the only one that goes to store. Fitting the weekly trip in with working and still being young, he could utilize the program.
But Mike didn’t know about the program. His neighborhood isn’t classified as below poverty level, but Mike’s family is not part of the affluent few. He was unaware of the steps Baltimore has taken to improve the struggle to get food, and he could have benefited from them. But because the previous food desert map wasn’t inclusive of the entire city, his neighborhood was not determined to be in danger.
In Mike’s neighborhood, vacant land could have been used to build a closer grocery store because there is a community need for one, but one didn’t go up.
When the new map is released soon, more solutions may arise as Baltimore attempts to curb the problem. However, the problem may be bigger than in the past due to the entire city being evaluated.
When Baltimore finishes studying the issue, the well-funded solutions will take six to 10 years to really show results. The residents can’t wait that long. The community-run efforts will continue until the city can catch up with more long-term remedies.
Whitelock Community Farm will continue to grow and sell fresh produce to the residents in Reservoir Hill. The farm stand is open from the last week in April until Thanksgiving weekend. A mobile market runs at the same time, selling the fresh produce from a bicycled-pulled wagon. Rather than being a business success, the mobile market serves as a point of outreach to alert the community to the farm.
It is part of the mission of the farm to be proactive in helping provide healthy food to a neighborhood that doesn’t have easy access to it. Worman attempted to link the farm with a local corner store and sell fresh produce, but the venture was hard to maintain.
“We learned a lot from it, that people really want things they can take on the go. You know an apple is going to sell a lot better than a bunch of collards,” said Worman.
When asked if the urban farm was serving the needs to end the food desert, Worman was optimistic. “I hope that we’re helping. I think we are. I know neighbors that buy from us and feel happy to walk down the street and do so,” she said.