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Food access is a basic human right

When people learn that I work in the ER, they ask me about car crashes, stabbings and shootings. They are surprised when I talk about patients who are seen for the number one medical problem, the leading killer in our city: heart disease.

More than 30 percent of Baltimore residents will die from cardiovascular disease, which is fueled by high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. These are all problems that result from eating unhealthy foods. As an ER doctor, I have seen 8-year olds with childhood obesity and 16-year olds with adult-onset diabetes. I have treated 40-year olds who are dying of heart disease and have seen how preventable medical problems cut short people's lives.

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It's my job to advise patients to eat more fruits and vegetables. Some will say that they know and will try. Many will say that they want to but can't.

Patients tell me about looking for fresh produce at their corner store but finding nothing more than a shriveled bunch of grapes and a brown banana. They point to corner stores on every corner, but none have a refrigerator. They tell me about their closest grocery store being two miles away and having to take two buses to get there — only to find groceries to be too expensive for them to afford. They end up getting takeout meals from fast food restaurants because there are no other choices.

How can we ask people to keep healthy when they don't have options to do so? What is more important to being healthy than the food we put into our bodies? Good quality food that's affordable and accessible is a basic human need. It's people's lives at stake.

This month, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake released the Baltimore Food Access maps that showed 1 in 3 African-Americans in Baltimore live in a food desert — areas that do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This is compared to 1 in 12 white Baltimoreans. Our food environment is split on the same lines of race and class that our life expectancies are.

The same areas that lack access to healthy foods also have high concentrations of liquor stores. This compounds existing health disparities. Research around the U.S. consistently shows that areas with high alcohol outlet density have higher rates of violent crime, suicide and motor vehicle accidents.

Under the mayor's leadership, there are many efforts underway to expand access to food. These efforts include the Virtual Supermarket Program, where the Health Department partners with ShopRite to deliver groceries to people at designated public housing and low-income senior housing, and Healthy Stores Program, where we provide support to corner stores to become healthy food stores.

Earlier this month, the mayor announced her decision to not allow nonconforming liquor stores damaged by the riots to use city loan funds to reopen in the same areas as liquor stores. While some in the business community have criticized this decision, those of us in public health look forward to the tremendous opportunity this could provide for businesses to step up in underserved communities. Our Healthy Stores Program operates four stores in West Baltimore, with the plan to expand to six in the next year and eight in the third year. For an investment of $750,000, we could support as many as 25 corner stores to transform them into businesses that sell healthy food options. For $1.5 million, we could make that change with three times as many stores.

Imagine how it would transform neighborhoods around the city to have liquor stores become stores that improve the community's health! It would dramatically increase access to healthy food options for thousands of people and send a powerful message to our citizens that our primary concern is their health and well-being.

We have a long way to go before we achieve health care equity in Baltimore. We can take a big step forward by investing in solutions to address the critical issue of food access. Let's work together to level the playing field so that all of our citizens can have the opportunity to live long and healthy lives.

Dr. Leana Wen is the Baltimore City health commissioner. She can be reached at health.commissioner@baltimorecity.gov. Twitter: @DrLeanaWen and @BMore_Healthy.

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