Courtney Cook paid about $40 once a month this summer for a Lyft ride from her one-bedroom apartment on West Lanvale Street in Harlem Park to go grocery shopping at Streets Market in Charles Village.
Cook, 36, recently got her red, two-door 2013 Ford Focus fixed after it had water pump problems for two months, but the breakdown had limited her shopping options. That’s because she’s one of about 146,000 people — most of who live in low-income neighborhoods — in Baltimore who reside in “food deserts,” based on 2018 data, according to the city.
“How can you allow food deserts to happen?” Cook asked, adding that a supermarket is badly needed in her community.
There has not been a grocery store in Harlem Park in recent memory, said Glenn Smith, a neighborhood resident who is also vice president of the nonprofit Baltimore Transit Equity, which advocates for better public transportation.
Chris D’Adamo, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said food deserts are often the result of concentrated poverty.
He said people who don’t have access to healthy food have a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular illnesses and some types of cancer.
“That’s a big problem,” D’Adamo said.
A community is considered a food desert (the office of Mayor Brandon Scott prefers the term “healthy food priority area”) if it is more than a quarter-mile to the nearest supermarket, more than 30% of the households lack access to a car and the median income is at or below the federal poverty level, according to the Baltimore City Health Department. The poverty level income for a family of four is $27,750, according to healthcare.gov.
According to a 2018 report by the city Department of Planning and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, 31% of Black people in Baltimore reside in food deserts, compared with 9% of white people, 11.4% of Hispanics, 6.9% of Asian Americans and 15.8% of all other racial and ethnic groups. According to the census, Black people make up 62.4% of Baltimore’s population.
The areas of the city with the largest concentration of food deserts are East and West Baltimore, according to the mayor’s office.
“How we can overcome or reverse the problem of food deserts is complicated. Obviously, having grocery stores — but that’s not always feasible,” D’Adamo said. “There’s a lot that goes into that.”
The private sector’s reluctance to open grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods due to concerns about profits is one barrier, he said.
The cost of opening up a grocery store in a low-income neighborhood is higher, while profit margins tend to be lower, said Jim Dudlicek, a spokesperson for the National Grocers Association, which represents independent grocery stores.
“It sometimes takes a number of years for these stores to become profitable enough to sustain their operations,” Dudlicek said.
Mobile food market trucks, online shopping and community gardens are some of the methods D’Adamo suggested for overcoming food deserts.
“[Community gardens are] the best way to help, because community gardens can also raise awareness about how food is made,” he said.
Solving problems with the food system requires constant work, according to Taylor LaFave, chief of food policy and planning for Baltimore City.
More than 3.3 million free meals and more than 43,000 grocery boxes have been supplied throughout the city since the COVID-19 outbreak began in 2020, according to the mayor’s office. The amount of food distributed increased rapidly after the pandemic began.
In addition, the city distributed 66,400 produce boxes, containing about 7 million servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, at sites in or near Harlem Park.
“Just distributing food is not a long-term answer to solve food insecurity, or to create a better food system in the city,” LaFave said. “Our team realized that just working to attract grocery stores is a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the only answer. And it’s become pretty clear we will never be able to attract a grocery store in every location that we would like.”
Baltimore has tax incentive programs to attract and retain grocery stores, but the stores are privately owned and companies want to invest only in certain neighborhoods, he said.
“The city can’t tell private corporations where to locate their stores,” he said.
There are other recent initiatives that attempt to address the overall problem.
For instance, the city is seeking to increase online participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. People with SNAP dollars (formerly called food stamps) can shop online, something they couldn’t do before the pandemic.
Starting this fall, MedStar Harbor Hospital will write prescriptions for patients to buy food using government funding. Participating organizations include the Maryland Food Bank, Hungry Harvest, McCormick & Co. Inc. and the American Heart Association.
Also, the city announced in May that it would provide $1.5 million over four years from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to urban farms that build and improve the food production supply chain “with a focus on Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities.”
Still, Baltimore neighborhoods struggle with food insecurity. LaFave said outreach to connect people to the new programs will help. But, he said, there’s also the fact that research indicates people want to be able to shop at a range of grocery stores.
The state, which oversees public transit that can help people reach multiple stores, is experiencing a bus driver shortage. And while the state provides bus service from Harlem Park to several grocery stores, for instance, residents say they want more.
The Citizens Committee and Citizens Advisory Committee for Accessible Transportation are two advisory groups that provide feedback to the Maryland Transit Administration about problems affecting riders and suggestions for ways to improve services, said Veronica Battisti, a spokesperson for the transit administration.
The state conducts in-person surveys every five years about where people want to go, she said. A new destination survey will take place this fall.
The state is also investing in employing more drivers, she added, increasing outreach efforts such as job fairs and doubling the number of training classes offered.
Harlem Park resident Oatho Harcum, 66, uses a wheelchair. He said that while his apartment building provides a free trip a week to a Walmart on Washington Boulevard in Arbutus, it is insufficient. So, he requests a ride from a relative, a cab, or a ride-sharing service.
“I gotta deny myself something [from grocery shopping] because of the traveling I gotta do,” he said.
He said Harlem Park is treated as such because it’s a predominantly Black neighborhood. Harcum, who voted for Scott, said the administration does not listen to people like him.
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He had an invitation for the mayor: “Come over for dinner.”
“I’d like to tell him that something needs to be done about senior citizens,” Harcum said. “Senior citizens got needs.”
The mayor’s office said the health department oversees food distribution to 2,000 older adults across the city weekly.
“We are always actively working to attract grocery stores to neighborhoods like Harlem Park through lucrative tax incentives and investing in alternative ways to ensure that our residents have access to healthy food sources,” the mayor’s office said in a statement.
While the city cannot dictate to grocery stores where to open, Joshua Harris, vice president of the NAACP Baltimore chapter, said the city could tell them where they should not. For example, grocery stores are required to obtain permits. If the city discovered during a store’s application process that there were already grocery stores in an area, it could indicate where there is a larger demand, he said.
Cook said the city needs to improve.
“This is really the [worst] food desert I’ve lived in,” she said.