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Report: One in four Baltimore residents live in 'food deserts'

The Baltimore Sun
Thousands of Baltimore's residents lack access to healthy, affordable food.

One in four Baltimore residents lives in a "food desert," according to a new study released Wednesday by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who pledged to improve access to affordable and healthy food.

In the 2015 Food Environment Map Report, researchers defined food deserts as areas where distance to a supermarket exceeds a quarter-mile; the median household income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level; more than 30 percent of households lack a vehicle; and there's a low score on the so-called healthy food availability index.

"We've never analyzed the food environment at this level before," Rawlings-Blake said, calling the report a "monumental step forward" in making Baltimore a healthier city. "I know that we can increase access to healthy and affordable foods as we move forward to dismantle this inequality in our city."

The study, by the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, found that children are disproportionately affected, with one in every three living in a food desert. The study also found that African-Americans have less access to quality food.

"When we look at many of our neighborhoods, there are life-expectancy disparities as much as 20 years," Rawlings-Blake said.

Rawlings-Blake said she is confident the report will become a national model for food access reform.

Rawlings-Blake cited recent efforts to open access to food, including tax breaks to encourage the opening of grocery stores in food deserts; making it easier to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at farmers' markets; expanding healthy food vendors at all public markets; and offering tax credits to urban farmers.

"The analysis offered in the report will guide our efforts as we move forward," Rawlings-Blake said. "Without growing healthier communities, we cannot live up to our greatest potential as individuals or as a city."

Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen spoke about the importance of healthy eating and noted that the top cause of death in Baltimore, and the rest of the country, is heart disease.

"What is more integral to health than what we put into our bodies?" she said. "Good quality food that is affordable and accessible is a basic human need."

According to Bernice Matthews, a mother two who lives in the Belair-Edison neighborhood, which is described as a food desert, the cost of food is limiting when shopping for her family of four.

"It really is hard to find good meals. The prices are so high," she said. "You've got to stretch your buck."

Matthews said she is pleased to see officials focusing on the issue.

"It's something positive for the community," she said.

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