July 8, 2016

The Long Shadow of Redlining on the Food System

Usama Bilal

Usama Bilal

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Last year Baltimore was shaken by an uprising that caught the nation and public officials off-guard. A good part of the conversation during the unrest revolved around issues of systemic and institutionalized racism. In response, the Johns Hopkins University started the 21st Century Cities Initiative; its first organized activity was a series of debates about “Redlining Baltimore.”

Back in the 1930s, as a part of the New Deal, a government sponsored program called the Homeowner Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created. This public agency helped the population finance home ownership through greatly subsidized loans. As part of its mission, the HOLC created maps that rated neighborhoods in terms of how the agency perceived each neighborhood’s investment risk. HOLC preferentially financed loans in neighborhoods deemed low-risk for investment. Red was the color designated for areas with the highest risk, hence the term redlining. Among the criteria used to designate areas as “redlined,” the presence of minorities (especially African Americans) was very salient.

But what can be the effect of an 80-year-old practice on our current cities, or our current food environment? Using the HOLC Residential Security Maps (obtained through the Sheridan Libraries Archives), we plotted the location of these areas in 1937 versus some markers of current social segregation or quality of the food environment.

These markers include food deserts, included in the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future Baltimore City Food Environment 2015 Report. In 2015, food deserts, shown below in red, have a very strong overlap with areas marked as red or yellow in 1937.


But the consequences do not stop here. A similar market, the presence of supermarkets, shows an even more stark pattern: only four supermarkets (out of a total of 43) are situated in 1937’s redlined areas.


The contribution of unhealthy diets to chronic disease rates has been intensely studied in the last decades. The lack of supermarkets offering healthy foods, the presence of food deserts and other environmental hazards that people experience in these neighborhoods may lead to the pattern we see below, where red/yellow areas in 1937 correspond to the lower life expectancies we see in our city.


If we are to start fixing local food environments, the issue of systemic and institutionalized racism must not be ignored. In syndemic situations, tackling one factor a time may not help in improving the people’s health. When a fundamental cause is at work (in this case, institutionalized racism), efforts should be directed towards the elimination of that cause.

Brief methodological note: The main sources are detailed below each map. The HOLC map from 1937 was obtained from the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries JScholarship repository. Any other data overlaid on top of it was obtained from the Baltimore Neighborhoods Indicators Alliance (BNIA) or the MD Food Systems Map project from the Johns Hopkins Center from a Livable Future. The HOLC map was georeferenced and transformed into a shapefile using ArcGIS 10.2.



  1. Posted by Robert S. Lawrence

    Usama Bilal provides us with a powerful and clearly described link between institutionalized racism represented by the red-lining of the New Deal support for home improvement loans and the devastating health impacts of the lack of access to healthy foods in these same red-lined neighborhoods today. The tragic events of Mobile, Minneapolis, and Dallas in recent days underscore the importance of dismantling institutionalized racism in all domains of our society.

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