By Antonio Moore
Special to the AFRO
You would think that it would be easy to get a decent meal in Baltimore, since the city has always been a “foodie” destination. All the best restaurants that I’ve been to are either in Central Baltimore or downtown. Yelp has even ranked Baltimore City at number nine on the list of top 10 U.S. foodie cities. The seafood here is renowned nationally, and tourists who visit rave about the vast selection of restaurants and food halls all located in Central Baltimore.
On the other hand, the working class and lower class citizens of Baltimore face many barriers in food access, and oftentimes are excluded from participating in the food scene of illustrious Baltimore. Neighborhoods in the east and west parts of the city are filled with food options that would make any dietitian cringe. This is the manifestation of an unspoken weight that plagues families for generations. I like to describe it as “poverty weight.” It’s not just the physical weight that your doctor reads off the digital scale, but the mental stressors weighing down on people that are associated with eating when growing up in neighborhoods like mine.
Living in McElderry Park, the label of my neighborhood being a “healthy food priority area” is ironic. Growing up in a food desert, the vision of enjoying healthy and decent food options constantly seems like a mirage. Ready to eat food spots and eateries in my neighborhood are nothing like the places that tourists rave about in blogs. Doctors would probably tell you to eat in moderation everything that the mom and pop storefronts in the neighborhood sells. These one stop shops for everything fried, salty, and ready to eat sit on every corner in my neighborhood. Most of the food available at these corner stores consist of fried chicken, lake trout, subs, and cheeseburgers to name a few. And all of those food options lack the proper nutrients for a balanced diet. Junk food like potato chips, gummy bears, and tasty cakes snacks all contribute to conditions like diabetes, but these are the complementary food items that line every aisle in the stores in my neighborhood. It won’t take a dietician or someone with a PhD to understand that eating these types of food on a daily basis are some of the leading causes of dietary lifestyle diseases that disproportionately affect Black people.
I’m not exaggerating when I say, some days Mike’s carryout kept me alive when “oodles and noodles” didn’t cut it. His prices are affordable, so as long as I was working with a couple of dollars, I could at least get myself something to hold me over. Mike’s menu choices never changed. His menu is just the same as every other oriental and fast food storefront in my neighborhood. His menu options ranges from chicken boxes to shrimp egg rolls, and not a drop of anything healthy in between. The tastes of all the foods are different and all leave you feeling sluggish and sleepy. But eating healthy and worrying about how a chicken box a day brings high cholesterol out to play is a privilege in when it’s the easiest thing to get to. So, either I can eat that, or travel somewhere downtown or in Canton to eat somewhere that treats my body and taste buds better. Just like anybody else, I would love to be able to eat good and grow healthier, but, a balanced and healthy diet is not as simple as waking up and making a decision to eat healthier, for me. Filling my stomach with whatever is accessible and affordable to me to satisfy my hunger was what mattered the most growing up. The same can be said for other young people facing the same challenges in accessing a healthier, higher quality food scene. Eating in the neighborhoods can be a danger not only the health but the livelihood of families.
Just being on the street or even waiting in food spots with all the crime and beef going on in the city puts innocent people at risk. Simply walking to the store puts you in harm’s way. Rest in peace to Taylor Davis, the promising 18-year-old girl whose life was cut short in a triple shooting in West Baltimore. Her and two other young men (who weren’t named) were gunned down just walking to the store that night. When I’m waiting on food from Mike’s carryout I’m always alert, with my eyes to the door and my ears open. The corner store that used to operate on the corner of my block never kept tenants for too long. They always ended up eventually getting robbed. Just back in October, a bullet from a stray bullet shooting flew down on Port st and into the windows at J’J’s carryout. The old chinese woman who takes the orders sits behind thick bulletproof glass, but if anybody was standing there waiting during the shooting could have easily been hit. People could never relax in places like those.
Just a little over a mile away from my neighborhood, there is a variety of fine eateries and pubs available to those who live there. One area off O’donnell Street hosts a variety of eateries and pubs that sit no shorter than a quarter of a mile off of the waterfront on Boston Street, and just across the street of the residential housing. Those residents have the privilege of nearby, higher quality, tightly Health Department regulated, fast casual food chains. A Chipotle, Five Guys, Chick-Fil-A, and Qdoba all operate a little under than a square mile apart from each other. Residents can enjoy the liberty taking a casual stroll to get food without getting caught up in shootouts, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Complemented by a Safeway grocery store, a Starbucks, and a Coldstone Creamery. Besides the Asian mom and pop storefronts in my neighborhood, we have fast food chains like Popeyes, McDonalds, Subway, Burger King, and a McDonalds. All step downs from aforementioned fast food and fast casual places.
“The abundance of food at your neighbor’s house will not satisfy your hunger”. – African Proverb.
In Baltimore, the question isn’t whether or not the places to enjoy good food or live a healthy lifestyle exists. There is plenty to brag about and live on. Families in neighborhoods like mine, get the most unhealthy and low grade food options on the pallet, while tourists and people live safely in the suburbs day to day without having to deal with even a quarter of what families in marginalized communities across the city deal with. The privilege of being able to live a healthy lifestyle in Baltimore City is afforded based on what zip code you live in. And for families like mine, we all bear “poverty weight.”