The city health commissioner says the recent expansion of a healthy foods program providing low-income Baltimore residents with easier access to produce and quality fare is one of the city’s best attempts to address grave health disparities reported among city neighborhoods.

On Jan. 31, Baltimore officials announced that the city’s virtual supermarket program called Baltimarket, will expand operations to its first school and third library. The unique program, which launched last March, allows residents in “food deserts,” or neighborhoods miles away from supermarkets, to order and pick up groceries at their local library.

Residents can now place food orders at the George Washington Elementary School and later this month at the Enoch Pratt Cherry Hill library. Originally, the virtual market was exclusively for residents in the Jonestown, Oldtown, Perkins, Middle East and Washington Village communities through the Enoch Pratt’s Orleans and Washington Village libraries.

The food delivery model is offered in neighborhoods where residents have proven poor diet habits, low income and limited vehicle ownership. In these areas, corner stores, which often sell pre-packaged or frozen goods, are the only feasible food outlets.

Neighborhoods surrounding the Orleans library have a whopping 15 corner stories, 40 carryouts, six fast-food restaurants, but no grocery stores, according to the city Health Department. Likewise, Washington Village has seven corner stores, 11 carry-outs, two fast food restaurants and not one supermarket.

With such limited food options, residents are more likely to face health disparities. As an example, Washington Village has the city’s sixth highest mortality rate for health-related complications including heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Cherry Hill has the third highest heart disease mortality rate. Ninety-seven percent of their residents are Black and over 60 percent don’t have access to a vehicle, which means they are less likely to travel outside the neighborhood for quality food. Yet, the closest grocery store is over two miles away.

In all the program target areas except Washington Village, the populations are over 80 percent Black. Washington Village is 44 percent Black.

According to a health disparities report recently released by the city Health Department, Blacks fared worst than whites in several health indicators including life expectancy and infant mortality last year, and the city as a whole lagged behind the state for its large health gaps between communities.

Some city neighborhoods have health disparities comparable to developing countries, including Hollins Market, whose residents live about 63 years – one year less than persons are expected to live in Pakistan. What’s more, the life expectancy for Hollins Market residents is 20-years less than those from the affluent Roland Park neighborhood.

At a public hearing last month, Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot reported that Black babies are dying at twice the rate of white babies, but researchers only vetting race inequities, miss the underlying health disparities.

High concentrations of vacant properties, liquor stores and overall poorly managed neighborhoods pose the core health risks, she noted. Vacant homes are associated with higher counts of cardiovascular disease, premature deaths, sexually transmitted diseases and homicides. Further, if an individual’s income is $15,000 or less, they are twice as likely to have diseases such as diabetes. “We must address inequities in neighborhood conditions in order to improve health conditions in the city,” Barbot said.

The city health report gave Baltimore a ‘D’ for overall health of its residents. “There is no quick fix for these issues,” Barbot said. “Part of what we are trying to do is create urgency.”

She noted that cross-sector action is essential to eliminate the disparities because health is the product of overall quality living conditions and opportunities.

Programs such as the virtual supermarket, which target enclaves with the greatest disparities, are a great start, she said. To date, Baltimarket, and its free food delivery, has served 65 customers and ordered $10,000 worth of groceries from Santoni’s Supermarket in Highlandtown – the program’s exclusive grocer. And half of customers come back, said program officials.

The food delivery model offers incentives for customers to purchase healthy foods, and participating libraries often host healthy cooking demonstrations and give out recipe books.

The effort, originally supported through a federal stimulus grant, ran out of funding in December, but donations totaling over $150,000 from Walmart and United Way of Central Maryland allowed its expansion.

Baltimore’s communities with scarce food options “deserve no less,” Barbot said.

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO