Use corner stores to fight chronic disease in Baltimore

It is easier to make healthier food choices and prevent chronic disease when our environment is supported by access to affordable and nutritious food. However, for many residents of Baltimore, this is not the reality. Baltimore is a city of neighborhood corner stores stocked with food high in fat, sugar and salt. An initiative known as Baltimarket, made up of community-based, food-justice and food-access programs, is working with corner stores to increase the availability of vegetables, fruits, low-fat milk, dairy and whole grain food options, but more funding is needed to make this program effective.

The CDC reports chronic diseases are responsible for seven of 10 deaths each year, and 86 percent of our nation’s health care costs are spent on treating people with chronic disease conditions. Yet of the nearly $142 million budgeted for health in Baltimore City, less than 2 percent of that amount is set aside for chronic disease prevention.

Furthermore, corner stores selling foods high in fat, sugar and salt are major contributors to the growing health disparities that exist among low income, minority communities. The Baltimore City Department of Health’s (BCDH) most recent Health Disparities Report Card found that 31 percent, of Baltimore City residents are obese. Obesity is a risk factor for many chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and hypertension — all of which are preventable.

Limited access to healthy food drastically affects a person’s chance to live a long, healthy life. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports more than 75 percent of African Americans are obese compared to 67.2 percent of whites. Obesity also disproportionately affects African American children. In 2011, 20.2 percent of African American children were obese, compared to 14.3 percent of white children.

It is crucial to increase funding for programs like Baltimarket in order to begin to address the city’s health disparities, which are fueled but Baltimore’s high corner store density and its many areas that offer very limited access to healthy food — called “food deserts.” For example, in Sandtown/Winchester/Harlem Park, the BCDH reports there are 27.5 corner stores per 10,000 residents and over half (59.4 percent) of land is covered by a food desert. It is difficult in these neighborhoods to make healthy diet decisions and improve population health without access to healthy food options.

“While research demonstrates living close to a corner store is associated with higher rates of obesity and diabetes, the converse is also true. In a 2010 study published by the New York Academy of Medicine, it was demonstrated that close proximity to supermarkets with fresh fruits and vegetables was significantly associated with lower obesity. In a review of corner store initiatives conducted by the CDC in 2012, having access to fresh fruits and vegetables increased the sale of healthy foods and increased customer nutrition knowledge. With proper funding, corner store initiatives can be successful. Cities like Tupelo, Miss.; Philadelphia; St. Louis; and Minneapolis all have had great success in increasing access to healthy and affordable food in neighborhood corner stores.

To address the growing burden of chronic disease in Baltimore’s predominately African American population, I urge Mayor Catherine Pugh to increase the funding of BCDH’s Chronic Disease Prevention programs like Baltimarket so Baltimore residents have a better chance to live long, meaningful lives.

Erika VanDyke (erikavandyke11@umaryland.edu) is a graduate student in the Public Health Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

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