Baltimore's fight against hunger gets healthy

When a load of bagged salad arrived at the Fishes & Loaves food pantry in West Baltimore recently, people scooped it up quickly.

Salad is a treat for the more than 100 people who come to the pantry each month but usually face a limited choice of high-sodium canned goods, cereal, and jars of spaghetti sauce. The Rev. Andre Samuels, who runs the pantry, wants to offer more nutritious options but said they are expensive or hard to find at the distributors, nonprofit and government agencies where he gets food.

"I would like to see healthier stuff," Samuels said. "But when my clients come in here, they're hungry and their kids are hungry, so they can't be choosy."

Area health officials and advocates want to change that. They're part of a Baltimore-area movement to turn the fight against hunger and poverty into a movement for better health.

This month, the United Way of Central Maryland launched a three-year program to expand healthful food options for low-income people in Central Maryland by at least 1.5 million pounds a year. The Junior League of Baltimore is teaching elementary-school children how to make healthful snacks and read nutrition labels. And the Maryland Food Bank is working with more farms to increase the amount of produce on its shelves, while making more nutritious frozen meals at a commercial kitchen it runs.

"I'm worried first about people not getting a meal," said Deborah Flateman, CEO of the Maryland Food Bank. "I don't want to hear that somebody is hungry. But ideally, they could be eating the highest-quality food on the planet, and our business model is changing to do that."

Baltimore officials, meanwhile, point to several initiatives that promote healthful eating. The city is turning 10 acres of vacant city-owned lots into gardens, and is improving food options at open markets. A nonprofit's program that allows people to use food stamps at farmers' markets has expanded, and the city continues its work to attract more grocery stores. This week, the city announced $2.4 million in grants to go toward a new grocery store in Howard Park and nutritious snacks in city schools.

The focus on more nutritious foods comes as health officials across the country are fighting an obesity epidemic. First lady Michelle Obama has made fighting childhood obesity her main platform.

Even people who don't overeat can suffer from weight problems because their food is high in carbohydrates, sugar and fat, health officials say. Poor nutrition contributes to diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. It can also slow cognitive development and hinder the ability to learn.

About 18 percent of people in Baltimore live in a "food desert" — a low-income area without large supermarkets or other access to healthful foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently found that 12.5 percent of Maryland households weren't getting enough to eat from 2008 to 2010, an issue that worsened with the weak economy and high unemployment rate.

"This relates to the health of the community," said Mark Furst, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Maryland. "When poor people have to stretch every dollar, they tend to opt for the higher-calorie, higher-fat items. They can't afford healthier options. No good comes from that."

The United Way began to look at food deficiencies when its hot line had an increase in calls from people in need of assistance. The nonprofit is working with farms to grow more nutritious food for food banks and holding healthful food drives, among other initiatives.

At the Bryn Mawr Little School recently, kids dressed up as vegetables as parents brought in wheat pasta, oatmeal and other nutritious fare for a food drive. The food was donated to Dallas F. Nicholas Elementary, a school with many kids who often don't get enough to eat.

Because Baltimore has a heavy concentration of carryouts and corner stores, city officials are working with owners to offer better products and promote them. Many store owners complain people don't buy healthful foods when they offer them.

The city recently received a grant to help improve food choices at open markets, which have a large number of carryouts. It will start at Lexington Market downtown, where the city will help vendors find ways to offer better food choices and create menus that point out what is most nutritious at a food stand. It will also help them market the foods.

Some low-income people say they would rather eat fresh vegetables than canned, but can't afford them.

Senora Lumpkins of Baltimore comes to Fish & Loaves to pick up food for a friend who is blind. The friend is supposed to eat a low-sodium diet, but the food pantry's offerings usually are anything but.

"She takes it because she has to eat, but if she had a choice, she would not," Lumpkins said.

Kelly Buller would like to give her 5-year-old daughter Valerie natritious foods but also relies on what she gets from the pantry. That meant she recently walked out with bags filled with canned vegetables, Jell-O and other processed foods.

Use of a program that allows low-income people to use food stamps at farmers' markets has increased by 35 percent since it started last year, said Holly Freishtat, Baltimore food policy director.

Freishtat stressed that education needs to go along with healthful food initiatives. Not everyone may know what is truly healthful or how to prepare foods in a nutritious way.

The city has worked with the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension program to offer classes on cooking and nutrition. And the city's Get Fresh Baltimore marketing campaign uses advertising created by local students on buses and at light rail stations and metro stops to show where fresh foods are available.

The Junior League of Baltimore is working with students from Govans Elementary School to teach them about nutrition. Meeting on Saturdays, the kids start with an exercise routine and learn about a food group. Then they make something healthy, such as a fruit smoothie.

The hope is that they will influence their families' eating choices, said Laura Calhoun, vice president of communications for the nonprofit group.

"There has been a lot of work on hunger for decades and decades around food access," Freishtat said. "But we also know we need to provide and make sure there is healthy food."