Baltimore’s Food Deserts Get a New Tool

The Lempert Report
March 19, 2020

Baltimore always seems to be at the center of food desert discussions – and for good reasons.

Low income and low density of fresh food availability.

Five years ago Loyola University set out to change the way people eat and established the FreshCrate program, using its food-service company to sell produce at cost to five small stores on York Road. Right in the epicenter of North Baltimore’s food desert.

FreshCrate is part of Loyola’s neighborhood outreach efforts, and is just one of several programs that Baltimore nonprofits, universities and city government have sponsored over the past 15 years to combat a national obesity and diabetes epidemic by bringing bring more healthy foods to low-income neighborhoods where diet-related illness is highest and healthy food choices are most scarce.

Khawar Jamil, the owner of Family Food Market, one of the FreshCrate retailers says 20 to 30 customers a day come in to buy produce, some paying with cash, some with FreshCrate coupons distributed at a nearby free-food pantry. FreshCrate produce fills several wooden produce racks and fridges. Everyday foods are most popular: onions, grapes, strawberries, apples he told Politico.

FreshCrate’s offer to stock the store with fresh food filled a need, says Jamil, who has run the store for 15 years. Giant Food, the nearest grocery store, is more than a mile away in suburban Towson. “But if you know it’s only one block, you can come here, you can send your kids to go get it,” he says.

Health officials say that a lack of access to healthy food is a factor in obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Almost 40 percent of all Americans are obese, including 47 percent of blacks and Hispanics. Obesity is especially prevalent among the poor. Baltimore—where half of all low-income residents are obese—bear a heavy share of the economic costs of obesity-related illnesses, which account for an estimated 10 percent to 21 percent of all U.S. health-care spending and more than $8 billion a year in workers’ lost productivity. A 2009 Gallup study estimated that obesity-related conditions cost the nation’s 10 most obese cities $50 million a year per 100,000 residents.

Studies by Johns Hopkins, Politico reports, have proven that carefully cultivated partnerships with corner stores, carry-out restaurants and recreation centers can increase sales and consumption of healthy foods and even help kids lose weight. 

A couple for years ago the FreshCrate program wasn’t that successful. Store owners were telling them the produce wasn’t selling well. So they used grant money to fund bus-shelter signage about the program, in-store branding of FreshCrate items, and a coupon program that delivered coupons for produce to everyone in its ZIP code. Next came the $9 per month in produce coupons for clients of the local food pantry. Since 2015, FreshCrate has provided 14,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to York Road corner stores—proof that increasing healthy food supplies in cities addresses a pent-up demand.