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Baltimore's food deserts

It's at least a 20-minute walk from the block where Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester community to the nearest grocery store. Last week, women from the neighborhood could be seen returning from shopping in the sweltering heat laden with bags of food or pushing grocery carts. More than 9,000 people live in Sandtown-Winchester, home to some of the city's poorest residents, most of whom do not own cars. Yet there's not a single food store selling fresh produce or meats within a mile of where they live.

Sandtown-Winchester is just one of more than two dozen areas around the city that a new study released last week by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake designates as "food deserts" — neighborhoods where there are virtually no grocery stores or supermarkets stores within reasonable distance of people's homes that would allow them to buy the kinds of ingredients needed to prepare healthy, nutritious meals for themselves and their families. The study, conducted by the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, found that one in four city residents — more than 150,000 people — live without access to healthy, affordable foods.

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The impact of the dearth of food stores in the city's poorest neighborhoods is greatest for children. Researchers estimate that as many as one in three city youngsters live in food deserts, making it difficult for parents to provide the healthy diets their growing bodies need. It also disproportionately affects African-American residents of the city, who are more likely than white residents to be poor. The disparities in access to nutritious foods translates into every other aspect of people's lives, from children's ability to excel in school to adult health problems such as asthma, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake has pledged to improve residents' access to healthy, affordable foods by offering developers tax breaks to encourage the opening of new grocery stores and supermarkets in poor communities and by making it easier to use federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program vouchers — food stamps — at city farmers' markets, which have greatly expanded in numbers in recent years. She also wants to increase the number of healthy food vendors at all the city's public markets and offer tax credits to urban farmers. These are certainly worthwhile efforts, but it remains to be seen whether they alone will be enough to close the gap.

In an ideal world, the corner markets scattered throughout inner city Baltimore would sell fresh, high-quality food rather than pre-packaged, unhealthy snacks — and, all too often, liquor and cigarettes. But accomplishing that is easier said than done. In 2013, for example, Erich March and his wife, Michele Speaks-March, were determined to bring a new grocery store selling fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and fish to the Oliver, South Clifton and Darley Park neighborhoods in East Baltimore. As The Sun reported at the time, they weren't targeting "the vegan or food faddist crowd. They just wanted a place where East Baltimoreans in the greater North Avenue area can find foods that won't undermine their health."

Yet barely two years later their store at North Avenue and Broadway sits empty, its shelves and counters bare. According to neighbors, it closed a couple of months ago, ostensibly for remodeling, and never reopened. Now residents must travel more than a mile to get to the nearest grocery, on Belair Road, and even farther than that to get to the Safeway at 25th and Charles streets.

While grocery chains sometimes fight for the opportunity to open in well heeled suburbs, the economics in the inner city are different. Even before the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray this year, Sandtown-Winchester was coping with myriad problems that made grocery and supermarket operators reluctant to invest in the community. Three percent of its residents were incarcerated, a third of its housing was abandoned, unemployment among working age people was 20 percent and a third of residents were living below the poverty line. Since then many of Sandtown's mom-and-pop food stores were damaged during the riots and may never reopen.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake has promised to use the Hopkins report to make Baltimore a national model for food access reform, and the measures she has taken so far represent a good start. But it will take the city's best minds and most creative entrepreneurs to come up with a comprehensive plan to realize that goal for communities like the one in which Freddie Gray lived. We hope they're up to the task. Healthy food is a basic human need, and Baltimore can never be a truly healthy city until all its residents have access to fare that nourishes their bodies, minds and spirits wherever they live.

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