Baltimore: Turning from Food Insecurity Towards a Positive Example

By: Saira Malhotra

Food insecurity is a national crisis, but without a doubt, some areas are hit harder than others. A recent report on shared some alarming figures on the current socio-economic conditions in Baltimore. For the past few decades, Baltimore has experienced an outflow of its population, leaving many parts of the city deserted and isolated.

The impact of this migration has been detrimental to Baltimore and left many communities in food deserts. Such isolation has resulted in 43% of people living in predominantly black neighborhoods being out of access to healthy foods compared to 4% of their white neighborhood counterparts. Statistics also reveal that two thirds of Baltimore's adult population and just under half of the student population are overweight, if not obese.

The city of Baltimore is no longer willing to take this lying down. At a recent panel discussion in Oakland, CA, Abby Cocke, of Baltimore's Office of Sustainability, and Laura Fox, of the city health department's Virtual Supermarket Program, discussed initiatives the city would be taking. The programs are part of 'The Baltimore Food Policy Initiative - an unusual collaboration between the city's Department of Planning, Office of Sustainability and Health Department .

According to Cocke, "In the past, growth was seen as the only way to improve the city, but we're starting to look at ways to make our neighborhoods stronger, healthier, and more vibrant places at the low density that they're at now."

The challenges that Baltimore has faced are applicable throughout the United States and so is their means to address them:

Intercropping in urban areas

Baltimore is relaxing their zoning laws to prevent farmers from being handed fines. In fact, farmers are being encouraged to create small farms in empty areas enabling people to access fresh produce.

To push these efforts forward, farmers provided planning officials with a criteria of their requirements based upon which, the planners identified 20 publicly owned 'parcels' (up to 12 acre plots). The city urged farmers to submit proposals for these plots and of the 10 they received, 4 have been approved for farming.

Using public spaces as supermarket outlets

The health department performed a study in collaboration with 'The Center of a Livable Future' to identify the target neighborhoods in terms of food accessibility, vehicle ownership, low income and diet related mortality rates. Based on these findings they partnered with a local grocery chain - Santoni's, to launch a virtual supermarket. Customers place their orders using the library computers and Santoni delivers the orders which can be paid for EBT, credit or debit cards and cash.

The Vitual Supermarket report indicated a 60% improvement in diets as well as removing the inconvenience of dicey transportation and unregistered taxis.

For Baltimore, this is just the 'out-of the-box' beginning. The goal is to generate excitement and make people aware of cooking and nutrition via cooking events and demos and continuing to make food accessible to its people. Baltimore is one of the first cities to employ a full-time Food Policy Director to ensure that food related issues do not fall through the cracks. While Baltimore's challenges set them apart from other food insecurity cities, it certainly is a great example of how creative thinking and devotion to the cause can turn the difficulties around.

Photo: Jeff Kubina

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