"As a physician, it is difficult for me to say to a patient ‘You have to eat better’ when people don't have healthy food options nearby."
So says Baltimore’s health commissioner Leana Wen, explaining why the city needs to create more "food assets" in poorer neighborhoods. One in four city residents currently lives in a "food desert," meaning the area doesn’t provide easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
The city is trying a new set of approaches called Baltimarket. This includes setting up "virtual supermarkets" in apartment blocks, senior homes, and libraries, so residents can order goods online. So far, 600 people are using the service, which offers a communal point for deliveries as well as Internet support for people who need it.
"Even though Baltimore has a population of only 620,000 people, we have neighborhoods with a 20-year difference in life expectancy [compared to the healthiest areas]. Part of that can be attributed to what we're putting into our bodies," Wen says.
The Baltimore City Health Department subsidizes the program, so customers only pay for the cost of the groceries themselves. Also "$10 off healthy food" cards are available on the first order and then during six subsequent holidays, including Easter and Christmas. The goods are delivered by ShopRite and can include frozen and shelf-stable food, toiletries, and prescription medicines.
To set up a site, communities need to find a physical space and promise to make at least 15 orders a week. The city provides a computer and Internet connection, plus help training and paying "neighborhood food advocates." There are six active sites so far; Wen wants to start another seven over the next 18 months.
Baltimarket also works to make local corner stores healthier places, offering help with fresh food refrigeration and links with suppliers. Wen says many small store owners "want to do the right thing and assist with the community. We just have to enable them to do so."
The link between expanded food access and better health outcomes isn’t completely clear. One study from the Morrisania section of the Bronx, for example, found that a tax-incentivized new store made little difference to food choices. The causes of food-related health problems go beyond access to one food type or another. But that’s not to say food deserts aren’t important and that we shouldn't be trying to reduce them.
All Photos: via Baltimarkets