Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has suspended the city’s Virtual Supermarket Program as a result of the closing of Santoni’s Supermarket.
The Highlandtown grocer is the city’s only partner in the program, which provides low-income families who live in parts of the city known as food deserts access to fresh food.
Rawlings-Blake announced the suspension in a news conference Tuesday, surrounded by supporters of the city’s “bottle tax.” Rob Santoni, the store’s owner, blamed the tax, established in 2010, for driving him out of business.
The mayor said she is sad to see Santoni’s go.
“Anytime a small business closes in Baltimore City it impacts all of us,” she said calling them the backbone of the community. But she “respectfully disagreed” that the bottle tax was to blame, noting that five grocery stores have opened in the city recently with several more to come.
Rawlings-Blake called the tax important to the city’s future.
"The bottle tax helped Baltimore to close a massive budget deficit and keep our city on sound financial footing without cuts to vital city services," she said. It helped pay for schools, maintain emergency services and secure $1.1 billion in school construction funds from the state.
City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot said her department is looking for new grocers to support the program. In addition, she said they will be working with community organizations to assist customers in the program.
The bottle tax, originally two cents, was raised to five cents in July after the city council passed the 2014 budget. City Finance Director Harry Black said that revenue from the tax in the first two months of the fiscal year is exceeding projections.