September 29, 2009

Baltimore Community Study Reveals All Too Common Effects of Food Deserts

Center for a Livable Future

Center for a Livable Future

This is the second of a two post series highlighting the critical issue of Food Deserts and how communities can work together to address their needs, as part of the Center for a Livable Future’s focus on National Food Desert Awareness Month.

I was a guest on the “Midday with Dan Rodricks show” three weeks ago, where discussion focused on Food Deserts and a recent study on how residents themselves felt about their effects.

We had conducted a community food assessment with neighborhood coalition Operation Reachout-Southwest (OROSW) amongst areas where studies revealed residents had higher rates of diet-related disease than other parts of the city.

We recognized it as an all too common correlation for people living in food deserts.

Together we assessed the food available within the community’s 41 stores, speaking to more than 100 citizens at senior centers, a WIC site, treatment centers and community association meetings.  And while residents fared better than the average food desert, even with two supermarkets located on the perimeter of the neighborhood the results are still grim. 

Of the stores we surveyed:

  • 77 percent had no fruit for sale
  • 75 percent had no vegetables for sale
  • 29 percent sold no milk
  • 47 percent sold whole or 2 percent milk
  • 75 percent of the stores sold white bread or none at all.

We found, paradoxically, that while shoppers spend most of their time buying food  at the corner store (46 percent); they spend most of their money at the supermarket (Roughly $280/month at supermarkets versus $114/month at corner stores).  

This paradox occurs because like most middle class shoppers, low income people travel to get what they want at prices they can afford.  However, unlike most middle class shoppers, when money becomes scarce our target residents patronize corner stores to fill their needs. 

In fact, 52 percent stated they were “sometimes” (35 percent) or “often” (17 percent) unable to buy healthy food because they are out of money or cash assistance.

When residents patronize a corner stores, there are few healthy choices available.  Most foods are made from products subsidized by our federal farm bill. Our current policy rewards the overproduction of commodity crops and depresses the prices to below market costs – an unsustainable and expensive policy. 

These foods provide lots of calories for a relatively small amount of money.  When you are poor and have to feed a number of people on a small budget, these foods become more attractive, slowing the rate of hunger with calories of little nutritional value that are calories nonetheless. 

When questioned about the ease of getting to a supermarket or grocery store 49 percent of residents noted it was not “very easy”.  These particular residents were also more than three times more likely to report that they or someone in their household had diabetes.   

Our nation-wide desire for more locally-grown food has burgeoned over the past few years, permeating all social classes.  This trend is reflected in the research we conducted, as more than three-quarters (82 percent) of survey respondents said they would buy food that was grown in the local community at a farmers’ market in their neighborhood. 

Of those residents, about 22 percent said they would buy at a farmers’ market because it provides fresh food and they would know where it came from. Others simply felt that the food from farmers’ markets is more “natural” and “doesn’t have all that sprayed pesticides” and their purchase would help support the community.

When asked whether there was anything that they would like to change about the food available to them, respondents repeatedly said that they would like the food to be less expensive, more nutritious and to have more variety. 

Of the 40 percent who reported there were foods they couldn’t find in their neighborhood, they frequently mentioned fresh fruits, vegetables and quality meat. 

Ironically, these products are already available in Maryland thanks to our rich agriculture heritage and the industrious farmers who carry it on.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a distribution network that transported the food grown here around the region? 

The community has several assets that it can draw upon in helping to improve the situation.  In terms of meal preparation, nearly a third of respondents report preparing meals from scratch several times per week (29 percent) or on a weekly basis (20 percent) ,and are very  interested (50 percent) in learning about healthy food preparation.

More than half (60 percent) of respondents strongly agree that health is related to eating.  When asked if there was anything they would like to change about their eating, 67 percent responded ‘yes,’ noting a variety of changes that they would like to make in their eating. Some of the most consistent responses addressed eating less fatty, greasy foods.

Maybe if they had fewer of those foods so readily available and such an attractive price, it would help their effort.

Looking back on our findings, during the interview on the Dan Rodricks radio show, I was asked if there was any hope to getting supermarkets to locate in food deserts. After all, supermarkets are attractive because they are convenient and their prices are better than corner stores.

I offered, however, that they are only one part of the solution, and given the current economic climate might not always be the most realistic.

In a positive development, for instance, last November Mayor Sheila Dixon convened the Baltimore Food Policy Task Force – tasked with determining what we can all do at the city level to tackle the problem. 

With many more great ideas than money to fund them right now, however, we as citizens must act to create diverse and creative means of ensuring all people can access healthy, affordable, and regionally grown food.

Since 2006, Anne Palmer has been the Eating for the Future program director for Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.  She is responsible for directing the food and nutrition work of the Center.


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