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City's "virtual supermarket" gets national recognition

Baltimore's "virtual supermarket," an 18-month old experiment in fighting urban food deserts, has captured some national attention.  Now it only has to catch on better here.

Baltimarket, as it's known, is one of six sustainability programs around the country that are going to be recognized next month at a National League of Cities gathering in Phoenix, Az.  All are examples of "creative collaboration, increased efficiency and enhanced quality of life for residents."

For many city residents, it's not that easy to get fresh fruit and vegetables, because there aren't any supermarkets in their neighborhoods. The corner markets and convenience stores that are nearby just don't carry many perishable items like that. 

Residents lacking cars often took the bus to a grocery store, then had to pay $10 to $15 for a cab ride home with their purchases, according to Laura Fox, coordinator for the online market program with the city health department.

So in March 2010, the city started offering residents of two neighborhoods without many food choices the chance to order groceries and have them delivered to a central location.  The first sites for the experiment were the Orleans Street and Washington Village library branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.  Fox said Santoni's supermarket, which already offers online grocery shopping, agreed to participate and waive its delivery fee.

Since then, the virtual supermarket has expanded to two more locations - George Washington Elementary School, also in Washington Village, and the Cherry Hill library branch.   Ordering also got easier - residents can now select their groceries from any computer anytime, rather than having to visit the libraries and school at designated times.  

Food stamp recipients can also order online, which is something of a rarity since federal rules do not allow electronic payments under the program.  Instead, Santoni's delivers the ordered items and collects from food stamp recipients when they come to pick up.  Pickups are tightly regimented, one-hour windows once a week.  But Fox said no-shows have been relatively few.

So far, Baltimarket has drawn more than 150 different customers, Fox says, who've placed more than 700 orders and bought more than $26,000 worth of groceries.  Roughly half of those customers have come back, Fox notes, a sign they found the service useful.

Residents can order any groceries they want, except for tobacco products (it's run by the health department, what do you expect?).  But they're also offered tips on nutrition, foods and preparation and even a cash incentive - $10 off on the first order and again for every fourth order of healthy foods.

"Just providing access isn't the whole piece to getting people to eat healthy," says Fox.

For all its national acclaim, the virtual market's not exactly doing a land-office business. She thinks more outreach might help.

"A lot of people still haven't heard about it in the neighborhoods we're in," she said.  Meanwhile, the next frontier may be to expand to serve public housing and senior living complexes, where lack of income and mobility may bring the need and desire for healthy foods together.

Launched with $60,000 in federal stimulus funds, the program's currently funded through the United Way of Central Maryland and the Walmart Foundation.

(Photo courtesy Baltiimore Health Department)  

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