Baltimore: Food Desert or Food Neglect?

By: Adrienne Lewis, Colleen Good, Kassy Taylor, David Statman, Emily Pelland, Nick Tabidze, and Synclaire Cruel

BALTIMORE, Md. — Joe Kilroy grew up in Howard County, Md. He has lived in the historic Baltimore neighborhood of Mount Vernon, filled with museums, galleries and restaurants north of the Inner Harbor, for two years.

It is “totally opposite of what people think of Baltimore,” he said.

Baltimore has the reputation of being violent, with 2015 reported as the most deadly year yet, but there is a greater harm to its people than homicide.

According to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), one in four Baltimore residents live in a “food desert.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of a food desert is not having a fresh food source within a half-mile, while CLF limits the radius to a quarter-mile.

CLF created the Food System Map of Baltimore City, which is the first report of its kind to methodically detail food deserts in the area.

According to the CLF, an area in Baltimore city is considered a food desert if the distance to a supermarket or supermarket alternative is more than one-quarter mile, the median household income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, more than 30 percent of households have no access to a vehicle, and the average healthy food availability score for all food stores is low.

When there is not a supermarket nearby, a person needs to travel to one, making transportation the next largest hurdle in a food desert.

While Kilroy likes the city, living there has had a negative effect on his physical health.

“The two years that I’ve been here, my cholesterol has skyrocketed,” he said, noting his blood sugar level was at a rate that concerned his doctor.

To avoid medication, his doctors suggested he adjust his diet to more whole foods and less-processed items. The mobile farmers market from the Real Food Farm helps, as long as it’s somewhere Kilroy can reach.

“If I were to get fresh produce, I would have to walk about a mile and a half to the supermarket,” said Kilroy.

Local Baltimore residents are determined to make a change in their communities and give people more access to fresh, healthy food.

Elder C.W. Harris, a prominent Baltimore activist, helped create the Strength to Love II, an urban farm in Sandtown-Winchester, a low-income but historic residential neighborhood in West Baltimore.

Several hoop houses, which resemble greenhouses, fill the block. Some were exposed and under construction, and others were filled with vegetables. The garden is folded between condemned houses, which line the city blocks.

Harris emphasized that there is no such thing as a food desert. Deserts are natural, and this is not. What this is, he gestured to the neighborhood, is “food neglect.”

Like the researchers at CLF, Charlotte Proctor, community market and outreach coordinator of the Real Food Farm, agrees that the definition should be restricted to one-quarter mile, rather than half a mile.

“In Baltimore, a half-mile can cover so much space,” Proctor said. “We pare it down to one-quarter mile when we talk about food deserts.”

Proctor and other volunteers operate the mobile farmers market, which brings fresh produce to communities that otherwise lack access.

This initiative directly addresses the issue of transportation, one of the factors in food neglect.

“If you’ve spoken to anyone who rides the bus, it’s not always convenient. Personally, I just want everyone to eat well and income to not be a barrier,” Proctor said. “That’s something we’re trying to target with our mobile farmers market and making sure it’s also accessible.”