September 28, 2016

A Taste of the Caribbean in Pimlico

Jelani Robinson

Jelani Robinson

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Island Food Market, Baltimore, 2016 / Jelani Robinson.

Island Food Market, Baltimore, 2016 / Jelani Robinson.

Over the summer of 2016, CLF’s Map Team interns visited every known food store in Baltimore City to collect data for the Healthy Food Availability Index (HFAI)—but they also took time to interview some of the store owners and learn about their challenges and successes. Here’s the fourth of those stories. 

Just outside of Baltimore’s notorious Pimlico Race Track at 5318 Park Heights Avenue is where you’ll find Island Food Market. The small international market corner store is owned by a couple I’ll refer to as Mr. and Ms. Gray in this post. The windows are covered with pictures of fresh fruits and vegetables and above the store is a blue and white sign that reads “Island Food Market, Bringing Home to You.” Upon entering the store I was welcomed by warm smiles, the sweet aroma of fresh Caribbean spices and a rainbow of brightly colored fresh produce. Although the store was small, the space was well used. With only enough space for two aisles, they manage to fit in plenty of fresh produce, a deli section for meats, cheese and dairy products, and an extensive variety of other international food products.

I asked Ms. Gray how she started their business and how long she’s been managing the store, to which she responded, “As you can see it’s a Caribbean and international store, but we carry mostly Caribbean products. It was an existing store, so there was a previous owner. So we’ve been here for a little over 10 years now.” I found this amazing because a lot of smaller stores in Baltimore have only been open for business recently or have closed. For a store to be open for so long and still going strong is something I haven’t come across quite too often this summer in Baltimore.

My research partner and I were interested what a typical day is like in this store. It’s one thing to go into a store on any given day and survey the store for healthy food without speaking to anyone, but to hear from a store owner about his or her day-in and day-out experience gives us a more qualitative aspect to our research. The store owner explained that a variety of people come into their store and for different reasons. “Americans get into Caribbean product, Americans love our spices, our seasonings, so they love the meat, the goat meat the ox tail and they come and buy the goat seasoning and the ox tail seasonings. For the Caribbean people it’s the yams, the bananas and crackers, stuff that they cannot get in regular stores but they can get in here.” It was nice to see that a corner store can sell fresh healthy food and still be just as successful, if not more successful, as stores selling more conventional products.

Having stores in Baltimore selling more fresh and healthy foods is something we want to see more of. In order to help make that happen another aspect of our research is finding out how store owners decide what to stock their shelves with and what difficulties they have stocking healthy fresh food such as produce. Ms. Gray told us, “What is in here is what we’re used to eating. When I came here people spoke of organics, and I did not know that organic food was so expensive because this is how we normally grow our crops and food at home, without the pesticides and all that stuff in it. So when we come here it’s natural these are the same things that we use, so it carries over. And it is not too difficult to get these products because we have people that provide the foods that we sell.” Having more stores in Baltimore having a direct connection with farms may be part of the solution to having more healthy foods available to people in food deserts.

Lastly, in addition to healthy food availability, during the interview I also asked a few non-food related questions to get a better sense of a corner store’s role in the community. That is, “What are some things that your store provides people that larger chain stores cannot provide?” Ms. Gray answered, “Some of the bigger chains try to provide some of the Caribbean product, but for us it is different. There’s more of a personal touch. Most of the customers that come in here, we know their names, they know us, and we can call them by name. When they go to the Giant or Shopper it is not personal, they’re just another customer. But for us that’s what makes us unique, that’s what makes it different, they’re friendlier, they can sit and talk about old times and make good conversation. In Giant they cannot do that because there’s nothing in common, they’re not used to the Caribbean.”

After listening to the store owner, I think it would do Baltimore some good to have more local corner stores carry healthy foods, in addition to adding stores with healthy foods. People seem to be more comfortable and willing going somewhere local, easily accessible and where they know the people—more so than taking a bus trip or walk to a large food chain for healthy foods.

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