c/o Real Food Farms
BALTIMORE — Forty years ago, the people of southeast Baltimore considered Oliver a quiet, middle-class neighborhood. Today, the median household income is $21,448 per year, according to the U.S. Census — well below the national poverty line. The community is plagued by crime, drugs, racial rioting, underperforming schools and abandoned houses. And if that wasn't enough, the residents of Oliver live in one of the worst food deserts in America.
A food desert is a community where retailers offering fresh food are scarce, but fast-food restaurants and convenience stores selling prepared foods are plentiful.
If a mother living in the heart of Oliver wants to buy fresh spinach and cucumbers for a salad, she has two options: Local grocery store Food Depot, or Safeway. If she has a vehicle, she can get to either store in less than ten minutes, but most residents don’t have access to cars. If she walks it will take her half an hour each way. The bus will get her there in 15 minutes, not including wait time. What would normally be a quick trip to the grocery store to pick up last-minute dinner items is a time-consuming ordeal for parents in Oliver.
Food deserts aren’t just a problem in Baltimore. A 2009 USDA study on food deserts found that about 5.8 million Americans live at least half a mile from a full-service grocery store and are without access to a vehicle. Of those, 2.5 million are families living in low-income communities.
Health experts wonder if lack of access to healthy food can be linked to higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease among the poor. In response to these issues, community activists are pioneering ways to bring healthy, affordable fruits and vegetables to the people who need them most.
One of the most innovative of these solutions is a program that has put farmers markets on wheels. Trucks converted into mobile farmers markets are popping up everywhere from rural Alabama to inner-city Chicago. Fresh food isn't just being brought into food deserts; organizers of these projects are also doing everything they can to make their produce affordable for their low-income customers.
Clifton Park, just blocks away from Oliver, is surrounded by low-income food deserts. In 2009, the city of Baltimore gave an organization named Civic Works the rights to start an urban farm in the park, which they named the Real Food Farm. Since then, Civic Works — a Baltimore urban service nonprofit that operates through a combination of government grants and funds from private donors — has been using RRF to grow everything from strawberries to sweet potatoes.
Several times a week, volunteers fill up the farm’s big, green truck with produce and drive around to the communities that surround the park. “We use the mobile market to break down barriers to accessing healthy food in the Clifton Park neighborhoods,” said Zach Chissel, program director at Real Food Farm.
Civic Works isn’t just bringing produce to people; they want it to be affordable. They accept food stamps and WIC, and they match the first $5 a customer spends on produce. “They get ten dollars worth of produce for five dollars,” Chissel said. Currently if a customer uses the dollar-matching program, $5 will get them a few pounds of sweet potatoes, three bunches of cooking greens, a pint of onions, a head of garlic and some apples from a local orchard.
The cost of this food is offset by grants Civic Works receives from the government, private donations and the fact that they use volunteer laborers. Additionally, the produce is locally grown, cutting down on the transportation costs that are tacked onto produce at traditional brick-and-mortar grocery stores.
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