Baltimore Goes By-The-Book Dealing With Food Deserts

Aug 13, 2010

By George Anderson

Food deserts, most public health officials agree, are a
major problem when it comes to tackling some of the most pressing issues of
the day such as obesity, diabetes, etc. But, the fact that many of these deserts
are located in poorer neighborhoods that make it difficult for food retailers
to conduct business profitably means that grocers are not rushing in.

and its food czar Hooly Freishtat have an answer for that. The city has created
a virtual supermarket, TakePart reports, that may demonstrate a
way for government and business to work together to turn a food desert into
an oasis.

The system is straightforward. Citizens in poor neighborhoods with
no supermarkets go to one of two centrally-located libraries where they use
the computers to place orders. The next day they can return to the library
to pick up their groceries, delivered by Santoni’s Supermarket. Customers can
pay by cash, credit, check and food stamps. There is no charge for delivery.

the future, Baltimore is looking to use local parks and recreation facilities
to deliver healthful foods to citizens in need.

Discussion Questions: What do you think of Baltimore’s virtual supermarket
approach to dealing with the food desert issue? Will this work elsewhere? Are
there other innovation approaches to food deserts that you think are worthy of

[Editor’s Note] Another Baltimore initiative is urban gardens. According to TakePart,
the city’s Office of Sustainability is looking at 10,000 vacant lots to determine
if they are suitable for growing foods.

Beth Strommen, director of the city’s
Office of Sustainabilty, told TakePart, “I
see myself as a person who’s there to help [farmers and people who want to
garden] navigate the bureaucracy… What I’ve got to do to make this work
right now is to keep their costs down.”

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11 Comments on "Baltimore Goes By-The-Book Dealing With Food Deserts"

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David Livingston
11 years 9 months ago

I don’t think this will work. People with the wherewithal to go to the library and place a food order probably have the wherewithal to get to a supermarket. Unless the library offers liquor and lotto, I don’t think it will catch on.

There are ways to get stores to open in food deserts and to get customers to shop them. First, eliminate all property taxes on the store. Declare the the store a “tax free zone” meaning anything sold in the store, there is no sales tax. Eliminate free lunch programs at local schools and instead provide parents of students with a voucher that they can redeem at the supermarket for a healthy box lunch. Remove restrictions on Food Stamps and allow customers to use Food Stamps to buy anything sold in the store. This would even the playing field with corner grocers that skirt the law now.

Ryan Mathews
11 years 9 months ago

It is innovative and I assume will either (a) charge the poor too much for groceries or (b) lose tons of money.

It also begs another question–the consumer last mile program. It is one thing to walk to a library if you don’t have transportation; it’s quite another to walk home carrying a week’s worth of groceries.

If people solve that problem by placing multiple smaller, more manageable orders, the delivery costs would seem to go up exponentially.

Len Lewis
Len Lewis
11 years 9 months ago

You’re not solving the problem here and that is access to good quality, reasonably priced food for everyone. What we need to see is a real partnership between the industry, local government, and community leaders that makes building and maintaining stores in these areas economically feasible for everyone.

Someone might like to pass that along to some unions who seem hell bent on stopping these projects unless they get their way.

Ed Rosenbaum
11 years 9 months ago

Having lived many years in Baltimore, I am familiar with the sad issue of food deserts. It probably exists in most large eastern metropolitan cities. It is a sad fact that needs to be addressed; but I am not convinced going to the library to place the order and returning tomorrow to pick it up is workable. Most inner city residents rely on friends or mass transit as means of travel. Carrying an order of groceries on a bus or walking them home adds to the problems. When you are walking with a week’s worth of groceries you are opening yourself up to be held up or worse.

While I want and wish for something to ease the pain of high-priced inner-city corner markets; I don’t think this is it.

Ben Ball
11 years 9 months ago
I have never been comfortable with the term “food deserts.” Do we mean that there is literally no food available to the people who live there? It seems they would leave or starve. Or do we mean there is no food there of the sort we think they should prefer? I think it is the latter. None of this is to say that people who want to buy it shouldn’t have access to the fresh and healthy foods deemed most appropriate for them. But is that what they truly prefer? Let’s find out. Here’s a proposal for a truly bold government/business partnership. Condemn a suitable site in an urban neighborhood and give it to a major supermarket operator lease free with 100% tax abatement. Provide the necessary security to maintain both the store’s appearance and the employee’s and shopper’s safety at no charge. In return, the supermarket provides the same product range its suburban locations carry. It also passes along all the attendant operating savings of the government largess to shoppers in the form of… Read more »
Roger Saunders
11 years 9 months ago

Baltimore is ‘serving a meal’. But this doesn’t focus on the importance of the tactile, vision, and human contact of being a part of the food chain. This will have limited success.

If the politicians of Baltimore really wanted to support these ‘Food Deserts’, they would get developers, labor, and tax incentives in line with encouraging grocery stores and Walmart or Target Super Centers to locate in these neighborhoods. Action like this creates jobs, improves the neighborhood, establishes a tax base, AND brings quality food to the ‘Deserts’.

Will the politicians have the courage to wake up to this fact? Never mind, that’s probably a different topic.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
11 years 9 months ago

The location of the libraries and/or potential recreation areas makes a big difference in terms of usage, convenience, and distribution costs. If the libraries are not within an easy walk carrying heavy bags of groceries, then there will need to be more smaller orders which drives distributions costs up. Restricting the ordering process to computers may be limiting as well. Phone calls may be more practical for ordering. The idea is great. The kinks need to be worked out to make it practical and useful.

Justin Time
11 years 9 months ago

Urban food deserts might be a thing of the past in such states as NY, PA, and NJ, thanks to IGA.

In Pittsburgh, for instance, IGA is planning to open as many as 20 outlets in the coming months, all in food deserts or potential food deserts.

IGA owner/operators have a commitment to operate food stores in underserved communities. That is a great way to gain and maintain loyal customers.

Bernice Hurst
11 years 9 months ago

Somewhat unlikely is the answer I’ve selected, but more’s the pity. I’m inclined to agree with the problems pointed out by most everyone else with regard to using “virtual” shopping and also agree that a range of incentives to get real stores with real products would be preferable. That might not solve the problem of having to carry groceries home but if there was a real store, people could shop more often. They would hopefully be more tempted by the products–assuming they were kept in tiptop condition and offered for a reasonable price–and make better selections. It seems that Baltimore has good intentions but they need to fine tune their solutions a bit more.

Craig Sundstrom
11 years 9 months ago

Like most of the respondents here, I share the belief that “something” should be done, but don’t necessarily think this this it.

There’s no mystery why full-line groceries are lacking in many urban areas…they can’t make money; which means either there is demand but the costs are too high, or demand just isn’t there. If it’s the former, then some kind of subsidy might make sense–I don’t necessarily think it should be tax abatement, maybe a direct subsidy would work better–because God knows governments waste enough money on foolish pet projects, they might just try supporting something of value.

OTOH, if the demand isn’t there, then one of those ominous “education” campaigns would probably be called for (see “waste money on foolish projects,” above).

Odonna Mathews
Odonna Mathews
11 years 8 months ago

Santoni’s model does not sound like it will succeed to me. The practicality of delivering food to a library presents many challenges. Storage room, the need for proper refrigeration and the overall logistics of an efficient delivery system present numerous challenges. In addition, reduced state funding in Maryland is leading to shorter operating hours for libraries.

Providing incentives for supermarkets to open stores in underserved locations does make a difference and has proven successful in other cities.


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