Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s battle against childhood obesity is being boosted by a program that will also storm part of the West Baltimore food desert and provide city residents—and their children—with healthier food choices.
The mayor Feb. 26 launched Baltimarket Health Stores, a Baltimore City Health Department (BCHD) initiative funded by a three-year, $750,000 grant, through which the city will collaborate with 18 corner stores scattered in four west side zip codes. With assistance from students spreading the word after-school about healthy eating and helping to transform the stores, the goal is to make healthy eating more widespread.
“We are very grateful to the Maryland Community Health Resources Commission for awarding these grant funds to the Health Department,” Dr. Oxiris Barbot, Baltimore City Health Commissioner said in a statement. “Corner stores stocked with healthier options can become a community health asset rather than a community health risk.”
The city labels an area a food desert if there is low-vehicle ownership, high poverty and little access to healthy foods. “One in five Baltimore residents and one in four school-aged children live in a food desert, according to Baltimore’s 2012 food desert map,” a city health department statement said in a release about Baltimarket program.
With the exception of Apples and Oranges Fresh Market—which opened in March 2013—the city hasn’t seen the opening of a food market tailored to a healthy lifestyle in years, according to local residents and city officials.
“The Baltimarket Healthy Stores project will lay the groundwork for a policy change to promote and sustain healthy food options and strengthen food equity in our communities,” Rawlings-Blake told reporters.
The money is to be used to subsidize the stocking of healthy foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, on the shelves of the stores that are common to the corners of nearly every block in a two-mile radius in West Baltimore where residents commonly shop for food staples instead of patronizing larger food chain stores.
Corner store merchants resist fresh foods out of a concern that there is not enough consumer demand for produce that could end up rotting on the shelf, city officials said.
Under the Baltimarket Healthy Stores program, some of the money will initially be used to offset the cost of adding items, such as fruit and vegetables and healthy snacks.
Officials voice hope that paying for an after-school program in which 75 students will target 12,100 residents with information about the benefits of healthier eating while helping merchants arrange stores and store shelves to attract consumers to healthy food, will help stimulate demand for good food.
“Access to healthy food options is a key determinant of health,” Barbot said.
“Risks for obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are strongly tied to diet, and research has found consistent evidence that diet is greatly affected by one's food environment. The unavailability of healthy foods has contributed to poor health outcomes in communities and is fueling Baltimore’s current obesity epidemic.”
The Baltimarket Healthy Stores initiative will target the 21216, 21217, 21223 and the 21229 zip codes—in what officials are calling the West Baltimore Health Enterprise Zone (HEZ)