Recently, I joined Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the local Howard Park Community as we celebrated what, in some other neighborhoods, would have been seen as a relatively mundane event.
Along with local civic, religious and business leaders, we were taking the first tangible steps toward bringing a major, multi-service supermarket back into the neighborhood’s local business district. More than a decade after the old Super Pride, at 4600 Liberty Heights Ave., closed its doors, residents of Howard Park can now look forward to a new, 68,000 square foot ShopRite superstore in their community.
Here is why this achievement is noteworthy for all of us, both locally and nationally.
First, there is cruel irony in the reality that in our country, one of the world’s major food producers, nearly 24 million Americans – including 6 million to 7 million children – live in areas that lack stores likely to sell nutritious and affordable foods, like fruits and vegetables.
According to findings by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, limited access to healthy food choices can lead to poor diets, higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases.
This is why America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama, has been working with major grocery chains to expand convenient, local access to healthy, affordable food for Americans in under-served communities.
“We can give people all the information and advice in the world about healthy eating and exercise,” Michelle Obama observed recently, “but if parents can’t buy the food they need to prepare those meals because their only options for groceries are the gas station or the local mini-mart, then all that is just talk.”
I agree. The scientific evidence is clear and convincing.
The nutritional decisions that we make for our families will have lifelong consequences. According to the National Institutes of Health, about one out of every three American children is seriously overweight – the second-leading cause of preventable death.
Those of us who live in economically challenged neighborhoods are not the only Americans at risk. Even in communities that enjoy many other amenities (like Howard Park), living in one of these “food deserts” can be hazardous to our health – especially for our children.
Working together, we all have important roles to play in “greening” our nation’s “food deserts.” Engaged and cooperative action by local leaders, the business community and government can transform our country’s nutritional wastelands into oases.
In the Congress, I was heartened last December when the Healthy, Hunger Free Act that I supported was signed into law by President Obama. We increased federal funding for our nation’s school lunch programs and updated federal school meal nutrition standards, and we also encouraged “farm-to-school” initiatives and broadened support for school wellness programs.
Closer to home here in Baltimore, Dr. AndrEQ O(e,’)s Alonso and the Baltimore City Public School System’s Food & Nutrition Service now offer a free “Breakfast Club” and a “Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program” in public elementary schools, as well as a range of other initiatives designed to produce healthier (as well as better educated) students.
For her part, Mayor Rawlings-Blake has demonstrated foresight and determination in working with the Baltimore City Food Policy Task Force, encouraging the City Health Department’s on-line “Virtual Supermarket Project,” and pushing for public-private partnerships like the one that the Howard Park Civic Association spearheaded to bring ShopRite of Liberty Heights to their neighborhood.
To any who would challenge our city government’s involvement in this process, they should know that the national effort to eliminate “food deserts” is predicted to create tens of thousands of well-paying jobs nationwide. Locally, I have been informed that the new Liberty Heights supermarket is expected to employ between 200 and 250 residents from the community.
In addition, the store should help the Howard Park Business District regain its traditional character as the area’s “Main Street” with the addition of a pharmacy, a nurse practitioner clinic and meeting rooms for the public.
Better nutrition for local families, good jobs, an engaged local citizenry and a commitment by business to be “of” as well as “in” the community – these are the four, interrelated arms of a very empowering vision indeed. This same vision can serve as a model for the transformation of all of our “food deserts,” both here in Baltimore and nationally.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.