Food vendors in Belair Market fighting a proposal to put a supermarket in Oldtown Mall know they couldn't survive the competition. But their opposition shouldn't stop the city from trying to give East Baltimore residents, especially those who live in the Lafayette Courts and Latrobe Homes housing communities, a better place to buy groceries.
Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, recently issued a report on the lack of supermarkets in inner-city neighborhoods. It concluded that poor people in many of America's big cities have very limited access to supermarkets, although those stores are more likely to give them the best prices.
Public Voice estimated that as much as $500 million to $1 billion in purchasing power for the federal food stamp program has been lost over the last 10 years because food stamp recipients without automobiles were unable to get to the stores where groceries are competitively priced.
According to a market survey by the trade magazine Food World, Baltimore has 13 Murry's, 12 Stop, Shop & Save and seven Farm Fresh supermarkets. Super Pride Markets, Super Fresh/A&P;, Food King and Food Kart have six stores each in the city. Giant has five and there are one Safeway, one Metro/Basics, one Santoni's, one Valu Food, one Eddie's Supermarket and an IGA.
That's about one supermarket for every 10,000 Baltimore residents, compared to an average of only .82 supermarkets per 10,000 residents in the 21 cities surveyed by Public Voice. But the Baltimore supermarkets remain inaccessible to many people without a car.
The city doesn't have a proposal from a supermarket chain for the Oldtown Mall. But the Department of Housing and Community Development is floating the idea to see if there's any interest. That has upset food merchants in the deteriorating shopping center -- most of them Korean-Americans -- who say they won't be able to offer competitive prices.
Final decisions in the matter must center on what's best for the community. The people of East Baltimore deserve better than what they're getting from Belair Market. Supermarket chains that fell in love with the suburbs are increasingly coming back into the cities, where land prices have been going down and the number of potential customers is enticing. That factor should not be ignored in deciding how urban renewal of Oldtown Mall should proceed.