BALTIMORE – Every month, Nellie Barksdale pushes a cart full of food from a grocery store to her home in the 900 block of West Lexington Sreet.
It’s an hour-long trek each way.
Barksdale has few options. She lives in one of Baltimore’s food deserts, areas across the city’s poorest neighborhoods where fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce because there are no grocery stores.
City health officials estimate food deserts cover up to 30 percent of Baltimore. This, researchers say, is helping spur a growing health problem: Nearly one out of every three Baltimoreans is now obese, according to city data.
Obesity-related illnesses are at the center of Baltimore’s discouraging health statistics. Heart disease is the No.1 killer in Baltimore, state surveys show. Diabetes, stroke and hypertension are more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods filled with food deserts. Those factors contribute to Baltimore’s life expectancy rate of 71 years. The national figure is 79.
Public health officials around the country have begun to say that, for years, cities approached obesity in a misguided manner, lecturing residents about what to eat and how often to exercise.
But eating healthy isn’t a choice when the available options range from burgers and fries to lake trout. And exercise — maybe simply taking a walk, going for a quick jog or playing a little basketball — isn’t likely when the streets are poorly lighted, lined with vacant buildings and besieged by crime.
And in many households, a bad diet is simply a way of life.
“It’s a continuing cycle…,” said Marcus Melvin, a business owner in the Park Heights neighborhood. “Instead of cooking dinner, it’s more acceptable for me to go to the Chicken Koop and get a chicken box, load it up with ketchup and hot sauce and some fries and feed my kids that instead of me cooking healthy meal.”
But around the city, nonprofits, city officials, community activists and business owners are collaborating in a variety of ways to fight obesity and the health issues it creates by making better food available to more Baltimoreans.
Some farmers’ markets are taking food stamps. City leaders are considering a change to the city’s zoning code so vacant lots can be used as urban farms. A Park Heights community activist is teaching residents how to cut salt and fat from their diets. And the owner of a wholesale food distribution company is planning to put up his own money, about $100,000, to shuttle people who live in food deserts to his stores, as well as to recreation centers.
“When you look at addressing food deserts, it has to be a multi-pronged approach,” said Holly Freishtat, the city’s food policy director, a position created last spring.
A snapshot of the city’s situation: The Baltimore health department, on East Fayette Street, is headquartered in a food desert.
“There’s four public housing developments within six blocks of any direction of this area,” said Ryan Petteway, the department’s social epidemiologist. “There’s three or four carry outs, there’s a Burger King and a Popeye’s. And that’s it.”
City health officials and researchers just blocks away at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are trying to figure out ways to improve the food environment in communities like this.
To address the shortage of supermarkets, the city created a program that allows low-income residents to order groceries online at two public library branches and have them delivered there with no delivery charge.
The Virtual Supermarket Project, paid for by a $60,000 stimulus grant that ran out in October, has had limited reach so far. The program counts 29 regular customers and about 200 orders since launching in March. It will be funded in the future by a recently awarded $100,000 grant.
Giving residents access to a couple of supermarkets is a step in the right direction, researchers say, but will do little to address the larger problem of poor health caused by eating junk food.
“It’s not enough to plop down a Whole Foods and say, ‘Aha! Everyone is going to be healthy now,'” said Sara Bleich, an assistant professor at the John Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The city will need to educate residents about why they should choose fruits and vegetables over chips and sodas, Bleich said. The city will also need to create programs that fit Baltimore.
Corner stores, researchers say, could be a way to do that. If the city could encourage corner stores and other neighborhood shops to sell healthy fare, the change could have a broad impact on residents in food deserts.
For Barksdale, the West Baltimore resident who marches an hour each way monthly to get the nearest grocery store, corner stores today are not an option she considers when it comes to fresh foods.
“The prices are too expensive,” she said, “Also, the quality is not as good.”
Still, it’s a notion being tested in other cities. Philadelphia, for example, will use part of a $15 million federal grant to make fresh foods more available by creating 1,000 healthy corner stores that sell produce.
Another strategy includes farmers’ markets.
Three of Baltimore’s 14 farmers’ markets started taking food stamps this summer and officials are hoping that will increase next season. Freishtat is also working to identify potential roadblocks in the city’s permitting process that could prevent new markets from opening.
Another approach being considered: turning vacant lots into urban farms capable of producing fruits and vegetables to be sold back to the community.
The city, which is considering the proposal as part of a revision to the zoning code, has identified 15 acres of vacant land suitable for farming, Freishtat said. Three urban farm sites are set to open this winter.
But Beilenson, who served as health commissioner from 1992 to 2005, cautioned that a push to bring healthier food options to Baltimore could be slowed by the city’s culture of “bureaucratic inertia.”
“In general, there’s not a lot of passion. Not a lot of activism and mindset of ‘Let’s get going,'” he said. “In a city with so any issues, you got to try things. Some things will fail.”
The city health department says its Virtual Supermarket Project and a new program designed to help post-partum mothers lose weight are examples of innovative approaches to encouraging residents to eat better. Tackling the city’s obesity epidemic, however, will require “long-term approaches,” said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the city’s health commissioner, in an email statement.
But Benjamin Green, who owns and runs B Green & Co. wholesale foods, is impatient. As a member of the city’s Food Policy Task Force, he’s tired of the long waits between meetings and what he views as the committee’s inaction.
“I just want to go already,” he said. As a CEO of a wholesale food distributor, he’s starting a shuttle-bus service to transport residents from food deserts to his supermarkets and to recreation centers.
“I really want to try to be a part of fixing the problem,” he said.
And in Park Heights, one of the city’s food deserts, community activist Willie Flowers is organizing community gardens and a healthy cooking pilot program. And he pushed to get the local farmers’ market to accept food stamps last summer.
Despite the progress that’s been made, trying to change how a community eats will be tough.
“This community don’t want healthy fish, grains, nuts and wheat bread and everything. All they want is chips, flavored water juices and cookies and candies,” said Melvin, the Park Heights businessman. “That’s what they were raised on so they don’t know better.
“That’s the mindset. We need to change the mindset,” Melvin said. “Once we change the mindset we should be good.”
Holly Nunn, Jessica Harper and Kerry Davis, of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism’s Baltimore Urban Affairs Reporting class, contributed to this article.