Increase access to healthy food

by Leo Horrigan, director of the Urban Agriculture Project for the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Published on June 16, 2002
© 2002- The Baltimore Sun

MAYOR MARTIN O’Malley’s success in attracting supermarkets to Baltimore will improve the food security of some city residents, but this initiative should be viewed as one component of a comprehensive food policy for the city and region.

Baltimore does not meet the national Community Food Security Coalition’s definition of a food-secure community because not all people can obtain a nutritionally adequate, culturally appropriate diet all of the time. The CFSC is a nonprofit organization with more than 250 member groups. The concept of food insecurity encompasses not just those who go hungry but those who don’t know where their next meal is coming from and those who depend on emergency food sources, including soup kitchens and supplemental food programs such as school lunches. The food-insecure are among the 45,000 people in the state who are served by Maryland Food Bank programs each week.

Poverty, of course, is a key factor in food insecurity. Since 21 percent of the city’s population is mired in poverty, Baltimore City faces a particularly urgent problem.
According to the Center for Poverty Solutions, Baltimore City has 12 percent of the state’s population but 43 percent of the state’s households that receive food stamps.

Nearly two-thirds of the city’s public school students qualify for free school meals. Forty-four percent of the people served by the Maryland Food Bank have to choose between paying for food or paying for utilities.

Many people in Baltimore do not go hungry but lack the nutrients they need to be healthy because they have poor access to fresh foods and nutritional education. Others survive on high-fat, high-sugar diets that contribute to the increasing prevalence of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the United States.

Access to grocery stores is a key part of improving food security. More supermarkets will help, but that’s not the only answer. Other cities, such as Chicago and Detroit, have established food policy councils – generally as part of city government – to develop ways to make their local food systems better serve both local farmers and consumers.

Such a council could thoroughly study Baltimore’s food system and determine whether nutritious food is available close to where people live. In a report released last summer titled “From Farm to Table: Making the Connection in the Mid-Atlantic Food System,” the Capital Area Food Bank documented the disparity in the number of food outlets in poorer sections of Washington compared with more affluent ones.

For example, Ward 2 – which includes Dupont Circle and downtown, with a median income of $39,225 – had 413 sit-down restaurants and 34 retail stores selling fresh produce. Ward 8 – which includes Anacostia and Congress Heights, with a similar population but a median income of only $12,651 – had only seven sit-down restaurants and seven retail stores with produce. Doubtless, we could find similar contrasts in Baltimore.

The public transportation system must also be examined to ensure that it provides adequate access to grocery stores. Hartford, Conn., made changes to its bus system because it worked well for suburban commuters but not for city residents trying to get to supermarkets. A cross-town bus route was added connecting poorer residents with supermarkets they couldn’t otherwise reach.

To help address food insecurity, Baltimore can improve the local food system. The city has a head start because it has so many local assets upon which to build: the public markets such as Lexington Market, farmers’ markets, a-rabs, a regional seafood industry based on the Chesapeake Bay’s natural abundance, the rich farmland surrounding Baltimore, and so on.

A coordinated, comprehensive approach that enables Baltimoreans to have greater access to healthy food would not only reduce their reliance on soup kitchens and fast-food outlets but would improve their quality of life and reduce health care costs in the decades ahead.

Leo Horrigan is director of the Urban Agriculture Project for the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.


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