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Food in the DesertChristopher Myers

Food in the Desert (cont'd)

An A-Ha! Moment in City Markets

Baltimore Healthy Carryouts may have started a ripple effect. In 2012, the city government's Baltimore Food Policy Initiative (BFPI) adopted the program's basic model and introduced it to carryouts operating in two of the six city-owned public markets. First established in the mid-18th century, the markets sold fresh produce, meats and dairy products for more than 200 years, but over the past several decades they transitioned into offering mostly prepared meals.

"Some of the markets are more like food courts," says Holly Freishtat, the city's food policy director and head of BFPI-an amalgam of city departments that seeks to increase access to healthy food.

While serving an internship with BFPI in 2011 and 2012, Seung Hee Lee worked with its then healthy food coordinator, Rachel Yong, MSPH '13, to analyze a CLF food assessment survey of the markets. They found that four lie in food deserts, and 70 percent of vendors in all six markets operate as traditional carryouts-in effect, implicating the city itself in Baltimore's paucity of healthy food.

"That was an a-ha! moment," admits Freishtat.

Subsequently, BFPI worked with 30 vendors in the Lexington and Northeast markets, both located in food deserts, to implement Gittelsohn's multifaceted Healthy Carryouts strategy, dubbing its initiative Get Fresh Baltimore. That meant designing new green-leaf-highlighted menus to emphasize the existing healthy choices, introducing new options and creating nutritious combo meals.

"The markets' management now prioritizes and understands the dire need to have more healthy food venues," says Freishtat.

In formulating food-access policy, BFPI has also successfully tapped into CLF's food-mapping project (, which graphically depicts Maryland's food system, including farms, processors, distributors and retail food outlets. Its Baltimore City map effectively portrays the city's urgent need for solutions. "[The map is] very good at targeting where need exists, how many people live in a food desert and what a food desert looks like," she says.

Using CLF's map, BFPI worked with the USDA to revamp its own food desert map and how a food desert is defined. That resulted in increased federal Healthy Food financing that is used to develop and equip grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores and farmers markets selling healthy food in underserved areas.

The Supermarket as Lab

Not long after his wholesale/retail-food company bought a Southwest Baltimore grocery store in 2008, CEO Benjy Green roamed its aisles, discreetly noting his customers' purchases.

"They were filling their carts primarily with unhealthy stuff," he recalls, "and I couldn't stand seeing what people were buying. I really felt like I needed to give back [to the community]. I thought, 'What can I do?'"

The community can use the help. Food Depot serves a racially mixed, economically challenged neighborhood vexed by a high incidence of obesity, diabetes and hypertension. The neighborhood's average life expectancy of 65 is one the lowest in the city.

Wanting to understand his customers' shopping habits and help change their behavior, he contacted the CLF in 2010, suggesting collaboration: "I said, 'There's a need here. Use us as a lab.'"

CLF accepted Green's challenge. "It was a researcher's dream," says Anne Palmer, MAIA, program director of CLF's Food Communities and Public Health Program (FCPHP), which launched a two-year campaign in 2011 called Eat Right Live Well (ERLW). The campaign sought to answer a simple question: Can changing a supermarket's environment induce its shoppers to become more healthful consumers?

Can a supermarket's environment help consumers make healthy decisions?


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