BALTIMORE — Towanda and Nancy Brinson stood, confused, in front of the entrance to the largest corner store in Washington Village, the modest, family-owned Shop N’ Go Food Mart.
There was a sign on the door that said the store was closed, even though it was still Saturday afternoon and the store in this Southwest Baltimore neighborhood normally closes at 9 p.m. That meant Towanda Brinson couldn’t buy the bus pass she needed to get to work early the next morning. And if she had needed food, she couldn’t have bought that either.
It’s a small slice of the problem the mother and daughter face every day in their neighborhood, also known as Pigtown – an enclave of row houses to the west of downtown Baltimore that is home primarily to low-income people.
Washington Village/Pigtown ranks in the bottom third of Baltimore’s 55 neighborhoods for life expectancy and heart disease, according to the city health department. It ranks 30th among city neighborhoods for the number of diabetes cases. All of these markers are linked to high rates of obesity, which is on the rise in Baltimore.
Public health officials say that easy access to good food would improve people’s lives. But in Washington Village – as in many Baltimore neighborhoods – that’s a struggle.
Like many people in Washington Village/Pigtown, the Brinsons don’t have a car, so they walk or take buses. And they have to plan every purchase in advance, because the neighborhood lacks a grocery store. There used to be a Safeway nearby but that closed last January.
“We have to catch the bus or a hack (unlicensed taxi) and sometimes it takes two days depending on what we want to get,” Nancy Brinson said.
When Towanda Brinson was diagnosed with type II diabetes about six months ago, she became part of a growing problem in the neighborhood. “I’m trying to lose weight but it’s hard,” Towanda Brinson said. “I’m used to one thing, eat, eat, eat. Now I’ve just got to cut down.”
A 2010 Baltimore City health disparities report card shows that Black people are twice as likely as White people to be obese, contributing to an overall higher rate of mortality.
But researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health wanted to look more closely at that statistic. They came to Washington Village, one of the rare neighborhoods in the country with a roughly equal mix of Black and White residents with similar incomes. When they studied women of the same socioeconomic status, they found similar odds of obesity in Black residents and their White neighbors.
“When it comes to obesity, it’s not a race story, it’s a story about the environments in which people live,” said Sara Bleich, an assistant professor and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, who studied neighborhood women and released a report about it in 2009.
“The findings are really promising because race is obviously something that can’t be changed,” Bleich said. “But the research shows that you can change environments and maybe there’s something you can do to actually have an impact on obesity.”
What city health department employees and public health researchers have determined is that obesity in Washington Village/Pigtown is caused by more than eating too much and exercising too little. At base, people there live in an environment where being healthy is not encouraged.
The nearest full-sized grocery store for residents is about two miles away. One of the closest grocers is the Whole Foods store in Harbor East, where prices can be hard on the budget. What is available in Washington Village/Pigtown is pre-packaged food like candy, soda and chips. Those items can be found in the dollar store, in the corner stores and in some shops.
Laura Fox is trying to influence people to choose more healthy options. She runs the city’s Virtual Supermarket Project. Residents can order on Monday afternoons at the Washington Village branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, then return on Tuesdays to pay for and pick-up their goods, all without having to pay a delivery fee.
But the program has been on shaky financial ground for two months, after a federal grant of $60,000 ran out. The Baltimore Health Department covered the cost for several weeks, until Fox secured a new grant of $100,000. With it, Fox has big plans to hire a community organizer and increase advertising for the service.
“I tell my friends about it,” Juhneer White, a customer, said. “What they need to do is advertise more. A lot of people don’t know about virtual groceries.”
Right now, the program has 29 regular customers in two locations: in Washington Village/Pigtown and in a neighborhood in East Baltimore. “There’s advertisements for the program on the inside of about 50 percent of the city buses,” Fox said. “We have a public service announcement out right now … and now that we have the grant we can definitely get the word out more.”