For Rodette Jones and her neighbors in Curtis Bay, a simple trip to the grocery store isn’t so simple. For anyone without a car, the errand can require hopping on two buses to the nearest supermarket two miles away, shopping and then hauling the groceries back home on the bus.
“I just want the people here to know that the food desert is real,” said Jones. “We want to eat healthy. We don’t want other people to determine what is healthy in the corner stores. We want the fresh fruits, the fresh vegetables that everybody else is eating.”
Jones explained this yesterday at a luncheon gathering of legislators, environmental justice experts, advocates and other stakeholders in Annapolis. The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, a group of black legislative leaders from around the state, hosted the hearing in a room within the House of Delegates building with the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities.
A 2015 Johns Hopkins study defined the “food desert” as a place where residents must travel more than a quarter-mile to reach a supermarket, median household incomes equal or fall below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, more than 30 percent of households are without access to a vehicle and, crucially, healthy food supply is low or non-existent.
The study determined this problem is particularly grave in Baltimore: One in four city residents lives in a food desert, the authors found.
Legislators and environmental justice advocates organized the meeting, called “Environmental Justice: Food Deserts and Equity,” so stakeholders and legislators could discuss the problem of food access and how it ties into other environmental justice issues for communities. The same neighborhoods that often lack access to produce and healthy foods, relying instead on unhealthy options from corner and packaged-good stores, also deal with issues of unclean water and air and other types of pollution, experts explained.
“It’s become apparent that the same communities that we deal with around issues of pollution, around environmental degradation, around the lack of resources, have a lack of resources in a compounded sense,” said Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, executive director of Maryland Environmental Health Network. “For us, this is not new work. It’s just another part of a paradigm.”
Others offered examples of this confluence of problems for poor communities. Sacoby Wilson, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, noted Curtis Bay doesn’t just deal with food deserts as an isolated issue. He told lawmakers that the zip code for the South Baltimore neighborhood bordering Anne Arundel County was ranked the most toxic one in the country in 2009, due in part to heavy industrial pollution. “When it comes to toxic pollution, that community has been impacted,” he said.
Vernice Miller-Travis, outgoing chair of the commission, said “the burden is falling most heavily on communities of color or low-income communities and on rural communities. We want to make sure that their voice and their presence is prominent here in Annapolis where the legislative work of our state is being done.”
Entities both private and public are trying to bridge the gap in healthy food options. Stacy Carroll, director of partnerships for the produce delivery service Hungry Harvest, told of how her company salvages millions of pounds of produce deemed unfit for display in grocery stores. For every box they buy from a farmer or wholesaler, they donate two pounds to hunger-relief partners that can then give those items to poor communities.
Hungry Harvest also sells the salvaged produce at subsidized farmer’s markets and their “Produce in a SNAP” stands where residents on what were formerly known as food stamps can purchase fruits and veggies.
“Our idea was the fact that you don’t have to be a nonprofit to do the right thing,” she said. “We connect the 600 million pounds of food waste that happens at the farm level and at the logistics level – before the consumer waste happens – with the people that are hungry.”
(An estimate by the nonprofit Feeding America pegged the total for food waste much higher at 20 billion pounds, Carroll later noted.)
City agencies are also working to fight issues of food access. Jones, who runs a community garden in Curtis Bay, noted Baltimore City offers property tax credits to corner stores that agree to carry healthy items. Another option is Baltimore’s “virtual supermarket” program, which lets residents order food online and pick it up at no extra cost at a designated spot in their community.
Del. Cheryl Glenn of Baltimore’s 45th district was one of nearly 20 delegates who attended the hearing. Others included recently appointed Baltimore City Del. Robbyn Lewis, Alfred Carr, Jr. of Montgomery County and both Carolyn J.B. Howard and Dereck Davis of Prince George’s County.
At one point, after Rodette Jones had described her community’s plight, Lewis stood up and offered some assurance. “Miss Rodette, I’m one of your new delegates. Whatever we need to do in Curtis Bay, we’re gonna do,” she said.
Glenn, chair of the Black Caucus, concluded the hearing on a personal note. She spoke of growing up poor in the same district in East and Northeast Baltimore that she represents now, and knowing what it means to go hungry. “It makes you angry when you’re hungry,” Glenn said. “It makes you angry when you don’t have the right nutrition.”
She suggested legislators hold work sessions on the topic of food access when the General Assembly is not in session, so they can prepare legislation that would fight food deserts in the next term.
“As state legislators, we have to ensure that we do everything we can do from a holistic approach to make sure that nowhere in our state, in our cities, in our counties do we have food deserts,” Glenn said.