July 22, 2016
A friend from Madrid will be visiting us in Baltimore next week. He enjoys eating and cooking at home, so I’d like to have a few dishes prepared for the next days. But a few factors, namely my location, the fact that I don’t drive, and my partner being out of town, make me realize that it’s going to be hard to fulfill my intentions of preparing a few healthy and hearty meals.
This reminds me of my time living in downtown Madrid four years ago. I’d work very long hours during the week, so I usually only had time to do my grocery shopping on the weekends. On a typical Saturday morning, I usually headed to the food market, five minutes walking from my apartment, and circled the 20 stores that sell only fresh produce, looking for the best deals (living within a student budget!). If it were late spring or summer, I’d end up with five pounds of oranges, six pounds of tomatoes (for gazpacho!), a few veggies for miscellaneous cooking and some change left from my five-euro bill.
A five-minute walk back home…but uh-oh! I realize I still need to have a plan for my friend, and I’m not in Madrid anymore! He’s arriving now from the airport (in a cab, the light rail does not run at this late hour), so let’s try to fix this together.
We sit for dinner (luckily I had some veggies left from this week’s CSA, operated through the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future) and we chat about this issue of food access. Coming from a very population-dense Southern European city, he reminds me that not only is the lack of a car not such a problem there, it is actually a blessing most of the time! You think parking is hard in Mt. Vernon? Try parking in Madrid! Parking costs there are higher, gasoline costs more, and overall it’s very expensive to have a car in Madrid. Then he tells me about his new apartment. He has a fruit and vegetable store in the same building, and it’s open from 9am to 10pm every day, so it takes him 30 seconds from his apartment door to a bag of tomatoes.
My friend is Manuel Franco, a 2005 CLF Innovation Grant recipient, who was already studying these issues in Baltimore a decade ago. He’s now the principal investigator of the HeartHealthyHoods Study in Madrid, a project that aims to see how urban environments affect our cardiovascular health. One of the objectives of this study is to understand the differences between urban environments (including the food environment) in Europe and the U.S.
We recently published a paper in the journal Preventive Medicine trying to explore this question. We looked at two neighborhoods, one in Madrid and one in Baltimore. We tried to select two neighborhoods that were “average” within each city. Not too dense, not too sprawled, with an average level of education and age and not too segregated. In Baltimore, we ended up in Waverly, with such luck that the Waverly Farmers’ Market was included in our area. In Madrid we ended up in Ventas, Ciudad Lineal, a neighborhood next to the main ring-road and the bullfighting arena. We went to every food store in both neighborhoods and measured Healthy Food Availability: Does it have skim milk? Whole grain bread? What’s the variety of fruits and vegetables? Actually, the Waverly data came from the Maryland Food Systems Map data collection effort
With these data in mind, we made a very simple comparison: if you live anywhere in each neighborhood, how many healthy stores are around you? How long does it take you to walk to a store with a high availability of fresh produce? The results were quite astounding. Forty stores in Madrid and 14 in Baltimore for areas of about 15,000 residents.
Around 77 percent of the neighborhood residents in Madrid had access within 200m (0.12 miles). In contrast, about 82 percent of the neighborhood residents in Baltimore needed to walk further than 800m (0.5 miles).
Sometimes we only begin to understand our homes when we go and live elsewhere. If you ask a fish “how’s the water?” the fish will answer, “What water?” Understanding features of our food environments that are ubiquitous may require comparing cities in different settings. This kind of new knowledge can help us improve the food environment in both cities. For example, one of the most salient features of the neighborhood in Madrid is its food market, open six days a week for most of the day, with about 100 stores, most of them selling fresh produce, fish or meat. Most importantly, this food market is run by the local government, helping the stores reduce their risk from in the economy. The history of food markets (beyond farmers markets) in Baltimore is probably the oldest and richest in the nation. Did you know that Lexington Market is the one of the oldest continuously running market in the country and the world? While some efforts to improve healthy food availability in these markets are in place, we need more.
People living in neighborhoods with low food access also tend to have lower access to private cars. This double burden of lower access requires innovative strategies, which may come from the most unsuspected places. Including Madrid.