At 81, Evelyn Robinson finds trips to the grocery store tiring and inconvenient. She either faces a long bus ride from her Cherry Hill neighborhood to the Shoppers Food several miles away, or else finds a grandkid or fellow church member willing to drive her. She’ll often slip that person $20 for their time.
Many in Robinson’s South Baltimore community live in what’s considered a food desert, a place without easy access to a supermarket, and where few people have cars.
Through a new partnership with Lyft, Baltimore officials are hoping to make it easier and cheaper to connect people in low-income neighborhoods with healthy food.
Starting Monday, people in areas of South and West Baltimore can register online with the ride-share company and get subsidized trips to participating grocery stores. Up to 200 people can participate in the pilot program, which will provide one-way rides for $2.50 each. Each rider can take up to eight such trips per month through April.
“Whoa, that is lovely,” Robinson said. “I wouldn’t have to wait for someone to be available to take me or pay as much money. I could go whenever I wanted.”
About one in four people in Baltimore lives in a food desert. The designation means their area ranks poorly in a city measure of food store quality, has a low median income, more than 30% of its households don’t have cars, and it’s more than a quarter-mile from a supermarket.
While people in these neighborhoods are often close to a corner store selling snack foods, it’s much harder to find fresh produce and other healthier options.
In these communities, which Baltimore now calls “healthy food priority areas,” residents walk long distances to get groceries. Some lug heavy bags home on the bus. Others pay people with cars — including hacks, or unlicensed cabdrivers — high rates to take them back and forth.
The city is working to attract more supermarkets to underserved communities in Baltimore, including through a grocery store property tax credit.
In the meantime, officials say, they need quicker fixes. The city has tried other ways to improve access to healthy food, including a “virtual supermarket” that enables low-income people to order their groceries online and pick up their purchases at a designated place in their neighborhood.
“Sometimes you need to bring food to people and sometimes you need to bring people to food,” said Kristin Dawson of the Baltimore Development Corp.
Baltimore is one of more than a dozen cities partnering with Lyft on the grocery access program. The company started the program last year in Washington, D.C., and approached Baltimore officials about trying it here.
The first six months of the pilot will cost $73,000, paid for with a combination of city dollars, grant money the city receives under state law from casino revenue, and a contribution from Lyft.
“This innovative ride-share pilot not only helps residents get to and from the grocery store, but also reduces travel time and puts money back into the pockets of low-income residents so they are able to buy more healthy foods,” Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said in a statement.
People in South Baltimore’s Cherry Hill, Lakeland and Westport communities will get rides to stores like Aldi, Harris Teeter and Shoppers. In the section of West Baltimore that qualifies — bounded by West North Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, West Mulberry Street, West Franklin Street, Edmondson Avenue and Hilton Parkway — the program can take residents to 10 different groceries, including a Giant Food store off Edmondson Avenue and Eddie’s Supermarket on West Eager Street.
Mike Heslin, Lyft Baltimore’s general manager, said the rides they’re offering might typically cost four times as much using Lyft.
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“It’s really about choice, flexibility, accessibility and ease,” said Holly Freishtat, Baltimore’s food policy director.
The idea sounds great to Ianthia Darden, 65, who lives in Harlem Park in West Baltimore. But she wondered how easy the program will be for people, like her, who don’t have smartphones. Lyft is typically accessed through a phone app, though it can be used on a desktop. Some older people, Darden said, are not going to be interested in messing with this kind of new technology.
A Morgan State University professor will study the program to evaluate its effectiveness. Already, officials are talking about how they hope to expand into new neighborhoods and go beyond the six-month pilot.
“That’s my primary concern,” said Professor Celeste Chavis, who works in Morgan’s transportation and urban infrastructure department. “I’m hoping it’ll be very successful, but if it is, the primary objective will be how to make this something sustainable.”
There are far more swaths of the city that could use cheaper, more convenient access to stores. About 146,000 people live in food deserts, and roughly 124,500 of those residents are black. That’s about a third of Baltimore’s African American population.
City officials hope this will help at least some of them.
“Let’s just make it easy for people to get food," Freishtat said, "healthy food.”