Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 2, 2021

Oasis in the desert: The fight for healthy food in Baltimore

By JULIA BROACH | April 18, 2013


lisa Lane ambled towards me through a row of sprouting kale dressed in a knit hat, loose, worn jeans stained with dirt and a hiking jacket, exactly the way I imagined an urban farm manager would look. She amiably welcomed me to her farm, as I was interviewing her for an environmental issues class I am taking at Hopkins. Elisa is one of the many Baltimoreans working to combat the presence of food deserts throughout the city.

Food deserts are areas where residents have little or no access to healthy affordable food. Elisa has managed Whitelock Community Farm for the past several years, and it has experienced remarkable success within the community that was previously recognized as a food desert. Her farm has been one progressive solution to the grave food access problems within the city.

Baltimore is a city plagued with food deserts. They exist in low-income urban areas, and the residents of these areas are forced to depend on convenience stores and fast food chains for their meals, which restricts their options to processed, packaged food items. Low-income Baltimoreans have no other options but to sustain a diet of unhealthy, processed foods which can lead to obesity, diabetes and other severe diseases. These residents are at greater risk of these ailments and of a shortened life span. According to a study in 2012, one in five Baltimoreans lives in a food desert, and nearly one in four of Baltimore’s youth lives in a food desert.

The term “food dessert” was first used in the 2008 Farm Bill, the primary agricultural and food policy bill passed by the federal government every 5 years. Since then, there has been perpetual discussion about the topic. Almost a year ago as part of the Let’s Move campaign, Michelle Obama pledged to eliminate all food deserts in the next seven years.

Recently, Baltimore locals have initiated many new efforts to address the critical issue themselves. These movements have included raising awareness about food access issues and implementing means of making fresh foods more available within food deserts.

Community farms are a growing phenomenon occurring in cities around the United States that are attempting to eradicate the issue. Advocates of these spaces believe community gardens and farms not only provide fresh, nutritious foods to the surrounding residents, but can also can increase the sense of community by bringing people together, fostering its development, preventing crime, and offering educational opportunities to youth about environmental sustainability and life skills.

Whitelock Community Farm, just a 15-minute walk from Homewood Campus, provides most, if not all, of these benefits to the Reservoir Hill area. Several neighbors realized the community was suffering and dreamed up the idea of a community farm. After several years of locals volunteering, the farm now offers affordable fresh produce to residents, and through the local corner store, Linden Market, it provides jobs for the neighborhood. It has helped revitalize Reservoir Hill through “greening” and beneficial community activity.

Other recent initiatives taken in Baltimore have been mobile farmer’s markets and pop-up fresh food markets. Real Food Farm created a mobile farmers market that is a truck selling local, fresh produce to Baltimore residents. Its mission is to deliver fresh produce to a number of food deserts in Baltimore. The mobile market provides low-income Baltimoreans with fresh carrots, beets, kale, mushrooms, and other fruits and vegetables by coming to the areas in need. A pop-up fresh food market, Apples and Oranges, has a similar mission. The full-service food market that just opened in East Baltimore provides healthy food options to locals, as well as lifestyle education including nutrition advice.

Although these recent efforts to address food access problems are clearly beneficial to the communities, are they enough? Or are they just band-aid solutions for the time being? Food deserts are not accidents that have occurred in Baltimore; the city’s history of structural inequality has led to food access inequality. Reformative, innovative urban planning can help aid residents of food deserts; however, socioeconomic disparity and the lack of nutrition and food education in the population must be confronted in order to make sustainable, effective progress.

There are deep, structural problems in the city that need to be addressed. Municipal policies should meet the issue, because the city cannot depend on local health and nutrition advocates to solve the vast issue through gardens and food trucks. These local implementations are vital in alleviating the negative effects of food deserts, but more must be done to solve this problem in Baltimore.

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