‘Food Deserts’ Get New Name, But Still Prevalent in Baltimore

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A map of “healthy food priority areas,” formerly called food deserts, from the city’s 2018
Food Environment Report. About 23.5 percent of Baltimore residents live in such areas, the report says.

Baltimore food policy officials have renamed what’s pretty much a household term now to describe a place where families lack nearby healthy food options and live in dire poverty, though the issue still remains a major problem in the city, according to a new report.

About 23.5 percent of Baltimore residents today live in “healthy food priority areas,” the city’s and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s new term for “food deserts.” The proportion represents a 1.5 percent decrease from 2015, or about 5,000 residents. In a report unveiled yesterday, researchers attributed the slight reduction to the opening of a single new Sav-a-Lot in East Baltimore that opened under a tax credit program.

Healthy food priority areas are still a harbinger of deep segregation. Researchers found 31.5 percent of Baltimoreans living in healthy food priority areas are black, compared to just 9 percent of whites. Children, who need good nutrition the most, are the most likely age group to live in such areas (28.3%).

As for the name chance, Mayor Catherine Pugh said at a Wednesday press conference announcing the new findings that “food desert” implies “that there is no food, when it is actually [that] there is an imbalance between healthy and unhealthy foods.”

Holly Freishtat, the city’s food policy director, elaborated, “we want to show what our focus is on. Not the liability, but what we’re going to do about it.”

Food policy officials and researchers wrote in their report that Baltimore can continue to attack the issue of healthy food availability through tax credits for grocery stores that open in impoverished areas, urban agriculture programs (see the Baltimore Food Hub), leveraging federal assistance for corner and convenience stores that carry healthier items and improving transportation options to help Baltimore residents more easily access grocery stores and markets, among other measures.

“What we know is that policy is starting to make a difference,” Freishtat said.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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