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Feeding City Need For Healthy Food Choices

Ignarri Lummis Architects

As residents in one neighborhood celebrate the coming of a supermarket, Baltimore city officials are continuing their efforts to increase access to healthier food options. Twenty percent of Baltimore City residents live in a food desert. That’s according to Holly Freishtat, the city’s Food Policy Director, who adds that there are two definitions of food deserts; the national definition and the Baltimore definition.

“The national definition of a food desert is really looking at low income populations – 185 percent at or below poverty level – and it’s also looking at the distance to a grocery store and so it has been at a one mile radius.”

The Baltimore definition, developed in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, is more refined. The city uses the same poverty level guidelines, but cuts the distance to the nearest grocery store to a quarter-mile radius to focus on walkability.  Freishtat says the definition also considers transportation access and the availability of healthy food.

“Johns Hopkins School of Public Health have actually gone out to all of the food retailers – from small corner stores all the way to full service supermarkets – and look at healthy food availability school cause we understand that not all grocery stores are equal.  A corner store has different access and price points necessarily to a full service supermarket.”

One of those deserts is Howard Park, where the last supermarket serving the neighborhood closed in 1999. But that may soon change. Developers are expected to break ground for a ShopRite there next month. It comes after a one-woman protest grabbed the attention of residents. Kim Trueheart, a community activist, had expected a new grocery store after the city bought the site on Liberty Heights Avenue. But things stalled.

“Then I started digging and I found out maybe Rite Aid was the culprit here.”

Rite Aid, which had owned the land previously, had a deed restriction that forbade potential buyers - like ShopRite - from operating a pharmacy.

“I’m a person of action.  So, I felt I needed to let Rite Aid know what I was feeling, my disappointment, my concerns, my angst at their decision not to help my neighborhood to become a healthy neighborhood.”

Soon the Howard Park Civic Association called for a city wide boycott of Rite Aid and officials at the Pennsylvania based drug store chain relented. But the ShopRite story is one of many in a city that has been struggling to attract grocery stores for more than a decade. Will Beckford, Managing Director of Commercial Revitalization for Baltimore Development Corporation, says that most full service grocery stores don’t like what they see in some of the potential sites.

“There’s income levels, there’s demographics, there’s population levels and a lot of our food deserts don’t have those three components to satisfy a full service grocer.”

Beckford says BDC and the city have looked at other options to provide access to healthy foods, including attracting smaller grocers and corner stores.

“You’re only going to get so many full service grocery stores in a city like Baltimore in the first place.”

City officials are also appealing to vendors in public markets to combat food deserts. Freishat says a recent assessment of Lexington Market shows that 70 percent of the vendors there are carry-out businesses.

“When we looked at this assessment, we immediately look proactively at how can we work with the public markets and we developed out ‘Get Fresh, Get Fit’ public markets.” 

The city has begun working with vendors in Lexington, Hollins and Northeast markets to get them to sell healthier food.