By PK Semler
Special to the AFRO

Nothing better defines the disparities of urban America than the rowhouses of Baltimore encircled by food deserts as their neighborhoods sit in the shadows cast by the opulent inner harbor skyscrapers that hold powerhouses of the financial industry.

The term food desert — originally coined in the 2015 seminal study by Johns Hopkins University’s Dr. Robert S. Lawrence — are those neighborhoods where the distance to a supermarket is more than ¼ mile; the median household income is at or below 185% of the Federal Poverty Level; over 30% have no available vehicle and local food stores rank subpar vis-a-vis the average Healthy Food Availability Index (HFAI) score. 

The issue of food deserts is something Maryland Governor Larry Hogan told The AFRO he is personally committed to solving through public and private partnerships. 

Larry Hogan interview video:

“This is an issue (food deserts) that a lot of people want to see addressed. We’ve got to convince more people to come into the city and do development and bring more grocery stores into the neighborhoods that need them,” Governor Hogan said, adding. “No question it is an issue I think city leaders, legislators and everybody in the administration would like to tackle.” 

The findings in the Lawrence study created national controversy, especially the statistic that one in four Baltimoreans live in a food desert.

“One of the things we found was that most East Baltimore corner stores would offer only two vegetables; onions and potatoes,” Lawrence said. 

In the McElderry Park neighborhood of East Baltimore in the shadows of the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Dolores St. Claire vented her frustrations that communities of color still lack decent and healthy places to eat and shop when this country is the undisputed food glut mecca of the world.

“In our neighborhoods we get the bad inch of it. In the White neighborhoods they have fresh vegetables  but when it comes here where the Blacks live at, the food is not as fresh as it should be,” said Ms. Claire. “I do not think that is right because we are all, all the same people. God created this world. He created everything here.”

For Baltimore civil rights icon, 70-year-old Dr. Marvin “Doc” Cheatham Sr., the term food desert is too polite a word because “the term desert denotes a natural phenomenon while this is truly food apartheid.”

One oasis in the East Baltimore desert is the Save A Lot food store at 2509 Monument Street offering residents’ a decent variety of healthy and fresh foods at reasonable prices.  The St. Louis chain of more than 1,000 grocery stores, was incentivized to open its present location in 2016 thanks to the Food Desert Retail Incentive Area tax breaks and loans enacted under Governor Hogan for food stores meeting a minimum floor space dedicated to produce and perishable goods.

A mouthwatering incentive for qualifying business owners is an 80% reduction of their personal property tax bill for 10 years. 

Yet the problem persists and the deserts expand.

In fact, Dr. Cheatham has had to use all the civil rights tactics learned as past president of Baltimore chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the NAACP and Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, to organize members of the Easterwood and Sandtown neighborhoods to re-establish a food market at Matthew Henson in Southeast Baltimore.

“We had a food market at Matthew Henson since 1945 and now there is nothing for the past seven years, Cheatham said, adding.  “We have gotten 300 signatures on a petition to demand that the city and 7th district Councilman James Torrence take action to help fill this food desert.”

The phenomenon of food deserts harkens back to 1910 when then-Baltimore mayor, J. Barry Mahool, legislated some of the harshest Jim Crow laws in American history. Under Mahool, “no negro can move into a block in which more than half the residents are white. That no white person can move into a block where more than half of the residents are colored” with violators to be punished by a fine of not more than $100 or 30 days to one year imprisonment. 

Someone who is already bridging the gap between the food deserts and the inner harbor skyscrapers is Rick Bernstein, the founder of First Fruits Farm in Freeland, Md. and Baltimore’s Brown Advisory investment management firm. 

First Fruits – which annually provides two million pounds of free top-shelf fresh vegetables picked by some 10,000 volunteers to area food banks and churches – ecumenically unites charm city C-Suite executives with food deserts’ youths and families in sharing the Lord’s healthy bounty by working side by side in toiling Bernstein’s 200 acres farm. 

*Councilman Torrence had not responded to the AFRO’s request by press time.

This is the inaugural article of a multi-media series “Securing the Bag,“ focusing on the most effective responses and solutions to Baltimore’s food insecurity; the series is funded by a grant from Solutions Journalism Network. See more on