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Fresh produce giveaway highlights need to end food deserts in Baltimore

Some 25,000 pounds of produce is given away Saturday in an effort to alleviate food deserts in Baltimore.

Pat Johnson filled her folding wire grocery cart with celery, collard greens, squash, onions, watermelons and other produce, but she didn't spend a dime.

Johnson was one of the estimated 5,000 people who showed up Saturday at New Hope Academy in Baltimore, where Tessemae's All Natural, a family-owned salad dressing and condiment maker based in Essex, and its partners gave away 25,000 pounds of free produce, along with pallets of the company's salad dressings.

The event aimed to provide nutritionally dense food to residents who otherwise might have difficulty finding quality produce at corner convenience stores, where shelves are often filled with processed snacks, or at carryouts, where greasy Chinese food or fried chicken are often served.

"We want to end food deserts," said Tessemae CEO Greg Vetter. "That's what this whole thing is: exposure to great-tasting, fresh, real food in a place that doesn't have access to it."

The company partnered with Verizon and Garden Highway for its Crop Circles initiatives in Baltimore. Similar events were held in Chicago and Compton, Calif.

Vetter said Tessemae will host another event in the future to help those in the area get groceries, and also to raise awareness about food deserts.

"The key here is leaving some kind of lasting impact," Vetter said. "That's going to come from building gardens, having 365-day farmers' market-type stands in these areas where hopefully the garden is right there."

A study released by the mayor's office in June found that one in four Baltimore residents lives in a food desert. The report defined a food desert as an area where the nearest supermarket is more than a quarter-mile away. The study also took into account factors such as median household income and transportation availability.

That report, compiled by the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, found that one in three Baltimore children is living in a food desert, and that African-Americans have less access to quality food than other groups.

The city has long struggled to retain grocery stores, which offer more healthful options, and many neighborhoods are left with corner stores that have limited offerings. In Howard Park, residents didn't have a grocery store for more than a decade until a Shop Rite opened in 2014. The same year, the city lost Stop Shop Save stores.

For Adrienne Williams, who lives in Upton, the closest option for her is a Save-A-Lot store, but she said it has a limited produce section. Williams said she's often forced to make a trip to another grocery store, but it's not within walking distance.

She left Saturday's event with a watermelon in one hand and a canvas bag, which included numerous items including Brussels sprouts, in the other.

She said she's never had Brussels sprouts but was willing to give them a try.

"I like asparagus. I've just never had them," she said.

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