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.
While Real Food Farm volunteers are improving residents' access to quality food, it doesn’t necessarily mean residents are eating better. Some studies suggest that teenagers with greater access to supermarkets have lower than average body mass index, while teens with easier access to convenience stores have higher BMI’s. BMI, a proxy for body fat, is important because high scores are positively correlated with health risks from hypertension to diabetes.
On the other hand, a 2011 study found that among low-income young and middle-aged adults, fast-food consumption is associated with fast-food availability. But consumption of fruits, vegetables and healthy grains has no relationship to the proximity of full-service grocery stores.
As they took produce to communities around Clifton Park, Chissel and the Real Food Farm team noticed that the elderly were their most enthusiastic customers. To better accommodate their limited mobility, Chissel arranged for his truck to make stops at seniors’ homes and community centers.
But Chissel wanted to find ways to reach out to families with young kids, too. He wondered if part of the problem was that they just didn’t know what to do with the produce. “Seniors know how to cook a bunch of greens,” Chissel said. But the same can’t be said for the younger generations — so the team came up with a few ways to address this issue.
First, Real Food Farm volunteers try to engage mobile-market customers on how to prepare the items they have on the truck that day. “Chop up those greens. Put a little oil or butter in a pan, sauté some onion and garlic, add the greens to the pan and cook for ten minutes,” Chissel said explaining his favorite way to cook greens. If people know what to do with the produce, they’ll be more likely to use it, he said.
Second, Real Food Farms is developing ways to pique kids' interest in real food. RFF brings its mobile market to elementary schools in the Clifton Park neighborhoods and gives the children hands-on opportunities to learn about farming, the local food system and healthy eating habits. “We try to arrange to come by an hour before school gets out,” Chissel said. Excited kids who’ve participated in RFF’s program show their parents the mobile market. When their children are excited about eating the produce, RFF’s volunteers have found parents are more inclined to make purchases.
Local government officials and non-profits are encouraged by the work RFF is doing to increase food accessibility, educate families on healthy eating, and to reduce obesity and heart disease.