Apples & Oranges Strives to be Oasis in a Food Desert

When it comes to quality products at reasonable prices, Apples & Oranges Fresh Market, so far, is hitting the mark. Located in the East North Avenue neighborhood’s nutritious food desert of quick sandwich spots and corner stores, Apples & Oranges is trying to create an oasis for grocery shoppers and a welcomed source of healthy food options.

Since its grand opening two months ago, Apples & Oranges has attempted to provide a compact, full-service grocery store to residents in the area, said Ehrich W. March, owner of the store and the nearby March Funeral Homes.

“We’re not a health store, we’re a store that offers healthy options,” said March. “We offer a price range that meets the community’s needs, but gives them better options.”

He and Michele Speaks-March, co-owner and wife, started planning for the store after hearing complaints from local residents about the lack of affordable and healthy food options. Ehrich March, community association president for the area for 13 years, decided it was time for he and his wife to act.

So, they hatched their vision of a grocery store. The project, in the works for two years, has gotten under way at a cost about $1.3 million. The Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based neighborhood revitalization organization, contributed $750,000 for the project; the Baltimore Development Corp. invested $110,000; the state of Maryland provided $150,000 in operating capital and the couple invested $125,000 of their own funds into the market.

“Dollars spent with us are not just spent, but a re-investment in the community,” said Ehrich March, who employs 21 area residents as managers, cashiers, cooks, stockers and produce workers.

The market offers an inventory that includes bananas, kiwis, strawberries, apples, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce and broccoli spears, all of which is re-stocked every three days to ensure freshness, said Michele Speaks-March.

A variety of meats are available in the case including ground- and cubed beef and chicken and turkey wings. Along the frozen-food aisle is a freezer with vegetables, pizza and ice cream. There are also aisles with dry goods from cereal and seasonings to hygiene products and a full deli with thick, homemade banana pudding made fresh by store manager Lawrence Dunbar.

While Apples & Oranges has nearly everything a prudent food shopper needs, there is an absence of several things healthy food experts say most folks can do without.

Apples & Oranges’ deli offers prepared food, but does not prepare fried food in the store. The market does not even have a deep fryer. The market carries sodas, but not the dark-colored, high-fructose corn syrup-laden, carbonated products that kidney specialists warn against. And there are few of the high-sugar snacks that are linked to diabetes and other diet-related ailments in the Black community, March said.

“There’s a generational mindset in the community of eating fast food and chicken boxes. We’re here for a change and increasing longevity,” he said.

The store brand is Shurfine, which the Marches buy through a co-op wholesaler that services independent markets, but for every store brand item, there are at least two national brand options.

“We also offer tons of non-lactose products,” said Ehrich March as he pointed to the dairy section. “A lot of Black people have lactose allergies. We have almond and coconut options, too, not just soy.”

Currently, Apples & Oranges sells grapes at $2.99 per pound, salad dressing ranging between $1.99 and $3.79 and frozen Healthy Choice frozen dinners at $3.79, prices that are comparable to nationally-known food retailers, such as Safeway, Giant and Shoppers’ Food Warehouse.

Located a block down the street from Baltimore City District Courthouse at the intersection of North Avenue and Harford Road, the store seems to be attracting patrons from the lunch-time crowd of lawyers and other office workers, Michele Speaks-March said. On a recent midday visit, patrons wandering the aisles appeared to reflect a broad spectrum of the city’s residents.

One shopper, Willie Epps, 46, who lives on Federal Street within walking distance of the store, said he and his family are encouraged by the variety—and prices –of Apples & Oranges’ offerings.

“It’s a little cheaper here, and it is nice in here,” said Epps. “They have fabulous service and it’s closer to home. We ain’t got to catch a hack,” he said of the informal, underground transit system that is not sanctioned by the city. “We can walk here and take the family with us. The meats taste pretty good, too. I was shocked.”

In his cart, he and his family had fresh cut lunch meats from the deli, fruit, some frozen food, cereal and other things.

Another shopper, Stacey Scriber, 40, who is a new customer, too, said the market sells nearly everything on her shopping list aside, from a few specific items like Washington Breading Mix for seafood.

“Since I’ve been coming here it has been a great experience,” said Scriber, who said the market is close to her children’s school. “The food is great, the prices are great and their customer service is really great. They’ve been very friendly.”

Michelle Speaks-March said they market’s sole purpose is not just to offer healthy options, but become a beacon for change in the community. She said she often helps struggling young mothers with children shop when they visit the store. Speaks-March continued that she is also trying pass along information about the benefits of fresh produce compared to processed, microwavable alternatives.

As the weather turns warmer, Michele Speaks-March said, plans are in the works for a sidewalk stand to sell snowballs and fresh produce. 

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Apples & Oranges Strives to be Oasis in a Food Desert


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