Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Md.- 45) weighs in on the importance of bringing fresh food options to the food deserts of Baltimore. Credit: Courtesy photo

By SenatorCory V. McCray (D-Md.- 45)

Partnerships can conquer tough challenges. Part of my job as a public servant is to find solutions to these challenges, especially when they negatively impact the communities I represent. Since taking office, bringing a grocery store to the heart of East Baltimore has been a challenge. A few factors hinder a community grocery store from taking shape, such as population and the income level of residents and families in the community.

Even though the challenges before us are enormous, many are possible to solve. In a few short years, I have watched and worked hard to improve the educational outcomes for youth, make housing more affordable for families, reduce the number of liquor outlets, increase green spaces for people to enjoy, enhance public safety and so much more in East Baltimore. Food insecurity, however, has been a formidable quest. Anyone who grew up in Baltimore can remember our Harford Avenue and Federal Street supermarket. There was another on Chase Street and Patterson Park Avenue and– more recently– in the Church Square Shopping Center.

Many of those neighborhoods are now “food deserts” or “Healthy Food Priority Areas,” a report changed the name in 2018, but its definition did not change. “Healthy Food Priority Areas” are communities where healthy food choices are limited because the nearest supermarket is a quarter mile or more walking distance. This issue is a barrier for older people and people who rely on public transportation to get back and forth. While we have acted and done more minor things, such as increasing SNAP Benefits during the summer months through Summer Snap for Children Act, Senate Bill 280 (2020), and improving transit access to healthy food outlets through Senate Bill 116 (2020), communities such as Oliver, Darley Park, South Clifton Park and others in East Baltimore remain “Healthy Food Priority Areas.”

However, in the last two years, one of our greatest accomplishments has been partnering with Dana and Dan Henson of Henson Development on the Somerset footprint to secure a grocer in East Baltimore finally. They already rolled up their sleeves and created a proposal to secure federal dollars to develop affordable housing units, green spaces, and now a grocery store – the first to come to east Baltimore in decades. In 2021, I remember talking to Dana about developing a plan to lure a reputable grocer to invest in East Baltimore.

After careful consideration, we realized we needed a subsidy to put together a plan of action which is how the “Somerset Grocery Store Initiative” was developed. Working with Senate President Bill Ferguson, we secured $1 million in the 2022 Maryland Capital Budget in our quest to provide fresh food to our neighbors in East Baltimore. The following year we added another $300,000 from the 2023 Capital Budget to solidify a $1.3 million investment.

If this was a four-quarter game, I am glad we have made it through the first quarter and are working hard to move past the next three quarters. While ground has yet to break on this project, I remain enthusiastic about having secured the funding and inked the deal with the grocer — this process alone took several years to accomplish. Instead of losing grocers as we have over the past several decades in East Baltimore, we can celebrate the hard work to say we put points on the board and gained one. As we celebrate this win, I hope we are laying the blueprint for more opportunities in East Baltimore, success in West Baltimore, and a blueprint for urban neighborhoods across the country.

Senator Cory V. McCray  is a Democrat that represents District 45 in the State of Maryland.