The Long Shadow of Redlining on the Food System

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. Read More >

Making Health the Default

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A recent article featured in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation News Digest on Childhood Obesity highlights a simple strategy that can be implemented in restaurants and other venues to improve the food environment.

The innovative new strategy is to change the offerings on children’s menus to highlight the healthier options. One way to do this is to set the default side options for children’s meals to healthier items. The default refers to the items that come with a combination meal if you do not explicitly ask for certain items. Traditionally, the default side options for combination meals have been soda and french fries. Healthier options are items that are advertised as alternatives to the defaults, such as apple slices, carrot sticks,100% fruit juices, low-fat milk, or water.

Shifting the restaurant food environment in this way-making lower-calorie beverage options and fresh fruits and vegetables the norm-may help to improve children’s nutrition when eating away from home. This is significant, as the number of meals children eat away from home has been increasing in recent years. Offering healthier items as the default also changes the decision-making environment by facilitating healthy choices rather than requiring people to alter their own behavior.

This type of strategy has been dubbed “libertarian paternalism” by University of Chicago professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their recent book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. A “nudge” is designed to steer individuals towards a certain behavior without taking away their freedom of choice. Read More >

Maryland’s Grocery Store Tax Credit Bill Could Improve Food Deserts

Maryland House Bill 1135, the Grocery Store Property Tax Credit Bill, passed the House yesterday with 138-0 votes! The bill grants a property tax credit to grocery stores throughout the state located in low-income areas. Delegate Justin Ross, the main sponsor of the bill, represents Prince George’s County, an urban county surrounding Washington, DC. Delegate Ross clearly sees the need for attracting new and better grocery stores into low income areas, especially low income urban areas, to help provide better access to healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables (the bill stipulates that a grocery store is defined as entity where “at least 20% of the gross receipts of which are 3% derived from the retail sale of fresh produce”).

Baltimore's Food Deserts

Baltimore's Food Deserts

The lack of quality supermarkets and groceries in low income areas has been receiving much greater attention recently. And these underserved areas are being referred to as “food deserts.” While there is no strict definition of a food desert, the term generally mean areas that do not have easy access (within walking distance in cities or a reasonable driving distance in rural areas) to a supermarket, notably the most reliable and most utilized source for healthy foods. The USDA’s Economic Research Service just published an article on food deserts in their March Amber Waves magazine. The concern comes from a greater appreciation of the role access to healthy foods plays in one’s diet. It is not enough to recommend that people eat “5 a Day” and educate people about how to shop for healthy foods and prepare them. This will do little good if people don’t have access to the recommended foods. We at the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) are excited by the recent attention that the “food environment” is receiving (for a detailed examination see Policy Link study).

The issue has come to the attention of local government officials as well – in 2008 former Baltimore City Mayor Sheila Dixon created the Baltimore Food Policy Task Force, of which CLF’s Anne Palmer was an active member. The Task Force’s report lists 10 recommendations to improve access; however, many of these recommendations have short-term impact and rely on alternative and seasonal sources for produce. People need access to healthy food year round, again which can be most reliably found at supermarkets and grocery stores. The Task Force recognized the lack of quality supermarkets in the city, but also recognized that the solution to the problem was long-term and they were tasked with looking for short-term, actionable recommendations. HB 1135 is perhaps one long-term solution to attracting the kind of supermarkets Baltimore needs (and that are needed in other low income areas in Maryland). The bill also leaves room for both large chain supermarkets and smaller grocery stores (even corner stores?!) to qualify as a “grocery” – if they can prove that their primary business is selling food at retail and that 20% of their profits come from produce. This flexibility could prove useful in finding creative solutions to food deserts, in that large, chain supermarkets may not be the answer for all locations. Read More >