Seeds of Change: Battling Baltimore’s Food Deserts
Access to affordable and nutritious food may be just a mirage for the 23.5 million Americans who live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “food deserts”—typically low-income areas that do not have easy access to grocery stores. Urban residents living in these neighborhoods often rely on fast-food joints and corner convenience stores for their meals, a practice that ultimately links food deserts to health issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
For many Baltimore residents—especially those living in the 30 percent of households without easy access to a car—finding fresh food options can be a logistical nightmare. One in four Baltimore residents needs to travel more than a quarter-mile to find a supermarket, placing that 25 percent of citizens in what the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future defines as a food desert. In a study the center conducted in collaboration with the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, researchers also found that one in three school-aged children in Baltimore lives in a food desert and that African Americans are disproportionately affected: 34 percent live in food deserts as compared to only 8 percent of white residents.
Even for those who live near a grocery store, proximity isn’t enough. At a local Giant supermarket, a dollar can buy either three in-season apples or a box of off-brand macaroni and cheese that serves as dinner for three people. If residents can afford only the store’s most unhealthy options, it doesn’t bode well for nutritious eating habits.
These complex problems require creative solutions, and members of the University of Baltimore community are up to the task. Our staff, students and alumni are exploring ways to help provide city residents with access to fresh, healthy food.
Baltimore: The City That Gardens
If you take the southbound exit for Maryland Avenue off the Jones Falls Expressway, you might notice a collection of yellow, green and blue planter boxes in a large, grassy area on the side of the road. Over the summer, those boxes were filled with herbs and vegetables.
Darien Ripple, affiliate faculty at UB and its experiential learning program manager, led the effort to construct the boxes and a neighboring greenhouse and shed in spring 2014 as part of the College Readiness Academy, a six-week program at UB that helps local high-school students develop their college-level math, reading and writing skills. Ripple had been asked to provide the students with a personal experience that would encourage inquiry and help them understand a complex problem. He chose to take a look at the city’s food deserts, an issue that directly affects many of the students in the program.
A local Home Depot donated paint, plants and soil. Ripple collected pallets from UB’s dumpsters to create four raised beds that he and his students filled with herbs—basil, thyme, parsley and dill—and vegetables, including tomatoes, green peppers and jalapeños.
Because some students in the program had never seen a garden before, Ripple designated one of the planter boxes as a sensory garden and asked the students to smell and identify the herbs planted there. “Many times, students don’t visually know any herbs because they haven’t really seen them, but they might know the smell,” he explains. He says oregano reminded students of spaghetti while cilantro made them think of the rice at Chipotle Mexican Grill.
“In order to have access to healthy food, there’s a great need for people to have education.”
Ripple expanded the gardens this past spring after receiving additional donations from Home Depot and a grant through the Office of the Mayor’s Baltimore City Anchor Plan, an economic development partnership among eight Baltimore universities and hospitals. He and his students, including members of a newly formed UB student organization called the Urban Farming Association, planted corn, beans and squash—the three main agricultural crops of various Native American groups—on the side of the Maryland Avenue exit ramp. These plants are known as the “three sisters” because they have a symbiotic relationship: Corn removes nitrogen from the soil, beans return nitrogen to the soil and the large leaves of the squash plant provide shade and retain the soil’s moisture.
Ripple has plans to ensure the garden continues to grow, including ideas for collaborations with community members and businesses, activities with elementary schools and a potential partnership to provide a local restaurant with fresh ingredients. The garden can be used by other UB classes to conduct ecological experiments, and Ripple is also inviting faculty from UB and other area colleges to include the issue of food deserts in their own curricula. He hopes to educate the greater Baltimore community about the importance of fresh food through student-generated projects that are focused on access to affordable and nutritious food and community awareness.
While the new garden at UB is located in a highly visible area, many of the city’s community gardens are tucked away. Valerie Rupp, M.P.A. ’14, director of community greening at Baltimore’s Parks & People Foundation, works with local residents who want to plant gardens in the city’s vacant lots. She has seen interest in community gardening increase year after year; the organization has more than doubled the number of Neighborhood Greening Grants awarded annually for projects such as edible gardens since the program’s inception in 1996, Rupp says. The grant program provides funding of as much as $1,000 to encourage community-led greening projects such as gardens, tree plantings and vacant-lot restoration. “When it comes to urban agriculture, there’s a big push for [edible gardening] in the city because there’s a huge amount of vacant land that people can use to grow vegetables,” she explains.
Another way the foundation provides assistance to residents interested in starting and maintaining community gardens is through an annual membership program called the Community Greening Resource Network. The network provides classes on how to grow produce in urban spaces and workshops on different urban agricultural practices in addition to free gardening supplies donated by local nurseries. It also works to reduce risk perceptions surrounding urban gardening, as many residents are concerned about broken glass, animal waste and other contaminants in the soil. “In order to have access to healthy food, there’s a great need for people to have education. ... so they aren’t consuming something that might not be good for them,” Rupp explains.
Along with educational resources, the network offers peer support for community members working to reduce the number of vacant lots in their neighborhoods. “When you’re transforming any type of open space, you’re talking about changing behaviors and patterns of people around you,” Rupp says.
Parks & People also runs several educational programs for city youth, and Rupp notes that—much like Ripple’s experience with introducing students to the UB garden—many participating children aren’t familiar with fresh fruits and vegetables. A community member working with the organization made this discovery while delivering bagged lunches containing tangerines to local high schools, she says. The students began bouncing the fruits as if they were balls, and the volunteer realized the teenagers weren’t just playing with their food—they had no idea what a tangerine was.
While the increasing number of community gardens in the city is a step in the right direction, Rupp notes that they won’t necessarily help children consume fresh, healthy food. “Actually growing food in your own neighborhood is fantastic, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle,” Rupp explains. Whether through school activities or community programs, she says, children need hands-on experience with gardening to learn more about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables.
“[Urban agriculture] is not the thing that can alleviate food deserts,” she adds. “[Community gardens] get people connected to things and they help create a demand, but if you really want to see people having reliable access to healthy food, you need to have reliable grocery stores that are full service [located] where people can access them conveniently.”
Michele Speaks, B.A. ’92, has direct experience attempting to change unhealthy behaviors and to increase food access. In 2013, Speaks and her husband, Erich March, opened Apples and Oranges Fresh Market in the East North Avenue area of Baltimore, a community with few grocery store options. Speaks spent more than a year planning the store, and it opened to much enthusiasm from residents. “We felt really good about the ability to bring fresh grocery products to the community,” Speaks says.
“Shortly into it, it was clear that there was a lot of pushback [from shoppers] about the lack of fried foods and soda.”
In addition to providing healthy food options, Speaks offered nutrition classes and food demonstrations inside the store, helped residents read package labels and learn how to shop on a budget, and held fitness classes in the parking lot. She also made a conscious decision to stock only healthy food. “Shortly into it, it was clear that there was a lot of pushback [from shoppers] about the lack of fried foods and soda,” she says.
Speaks says she also heard rumors that the store’s prices were too high and that local residents expected heavily discounted prices. “The impression was [that] because we were here to be a service to the community ... the items in the store would be nearly free,” she says. Because of the store’s small size compared to large supermarket chains, she wasn’t able to buy the bulk quantities that would allow her to offer lower prices. After only 18 months, Speaks and her husband closed the store.
“We made a good attempt with the intent and mission of the store,” Speaks says. She admits that she was rigid in her ideas about offering only healthy food options and didn’t acknowledge the community’s appetite for certain unhealthy items. “We were trying to change the culture,” she explains.
Despite the criticism Apples and Oranges received from the community, Olivia Farrow, J.D. ’95, says there is demand for healthy food in the city. As the Baltimore City Health Department’s deputy commissioner for youth wellness and community health, Farrow spearheads the city’s Virtual Supermarket Program, underway since 2010. Through the program, residents can order groceries online and pick them up at five set locations, including a local library and several senior and public-housing buildings. “It’s a unique program—bringing healthy foods to people where there [haven’t] been those options,” she says. Farrow says the program is very popular among senior citizens who don’t have transportation or who physically can’t travel to the store.
The Virtual Supermarket Program falls under the department’s Baltimarket initiative, which entails working with neighborhood advocates to address issues of food equity in the city’s food deserts. Advocates receive training on how to become community leaders, and in turn they engage fellow residents in conversations about nutrition and the importance of eating healthily, Farrow explains. Along with Farrow’s team, the neighborhood advocates encourage local corner-store owners to stock additional healthy food options and to change their signage to promote these offerings.
Farrow believes that despite the challenges facing Baltimore and the rest of the country—including reversing unhealthy behaviors—city residents do want to improve their overall health and know that a diet filled with fresh produce will help them meet those goals. “We’re trying to engage the community as a whole,” Farrow says. “Poverty is a big barrier—we have to work within a person’s means to access healthy food—but we know that people really want to [eat healthily] and [that] they will do it if they have access.”