BALTIMORE – Gil Sandler remembers the stores that lined the block in his old neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore. Brenner had a dairy store. Hartman owned the bakery next door to the butcher. Next to that was Krasman, who owned the hardware store next to the fruit store.
Sandler, a communications officer at the Abell Foundation, is also a Baltimore historian. He wrote the Baltimore Sun column “Baltimore Glimpses” for 31 years and has written four books about Baltimore.
His memories reveal how much most of Baltimore’s neighborhoods have changed since then. Stadiums have been built, factories have closed, neighborhoods have been abandoned and developed. And the way that people in the city shop for food has changed dramatically.
Most neighborhoods lost those small food shops. All those blocks have now are corner stores, carry-outs, and fast-food restaurants, with grocery stores scarce in the city.
How people shop for food is important to health officials and researchers. Nearly one in three Baltimoreans is obese, according to the city health department, and researchers are trying to figure out how to cut that rate. They see that it’s hard to find healthy food in many city neighborhoods, and that the kinds of food people have access to can raise or lower rates of obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Historically, it was easy to find fresh, healthy food in Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Most of them had a commercial center, where a block of small, family-owned stores specialized in one kind of product, like dairy or fruit.
But after World War II, the economics of food transportation and consumption changed. Before 1950, the best and freshest food was shipped into Baltimore from the surrounding areas and purchased early in the morning by store owners. The widespread use of refrigerated trucks in the 1950s made it easier to bring products from far away. The trucks favored larger stores, Sandler said, because they required only one stop, as opposed to 10 stops.
About the same time, industry began moving out of cities, and more and more middle-class families bought cars and moved as well — especially middle-class white families, who took their businesses and spending power with them to the suburbs.
The suburbs, with more space to build, also allowed supermarkets to flourish. Many stores that were left behind eventually went out of business.
As stores began to close or move, Sandler said, “A lot of people were locked out. Neighbors were locked out because they couldn’t move. The suburbs didn’t want them. Merchants were locked out because they couldn’t become supermarkets. They were stuck in small spaces.”
As is often the case with urban history, race played a large role. White families moved out of the city in part because black families were moving in. White flight increased the pace of suburbanization and made business owners, mostly white, fearful about doing business in the city.
“I would argue that growing majority black cities were not perceived as viable or desirable places of investment,” said Dr. Rhonda Williams, associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who has studied inequalities in urban settings, including Baltimore.
Business owners feared that the lower incomes of Baltimore’s new residents would be unable to support stores, or that high crime rates would lead to low sales, Williams said.
These changes were occurring in many cities throughout the U.S., including Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington — cities that also have faced problems with the availability of healthy food.
The movement of food stores out of Baltimore accelerated after the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Many stores were burned or looted and closed or moved out of the city.
“Supermarkets believed they couldn’t make money and that it wasn’t safe,” Sandler said.
Federal agriculture policy also played a role in how Americans shopped: The kind of food available and affordable to city residents began changing shortly after the riots, as subsidies for staple foods like wheat, corn, and soybeans became more available for farmers in the early 1970s, said Jessica Kelley-Moore, an associate professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University.
“This meant it was extremely cheap to make convenience foods,” said Kelley-Moore, who studies disparities in health and health care in Baltimore neighborhoods. “And it still holds today that a bag of chips is being subsidized by the government at a rate of about 75 percent of actual value…It keeps ‘junk’ food cheaper than healthy food.”
Junk food makes up most of the inventory in corner stores now populating the business districts of low-income neighborhoods. With few grocery stores and fewer options for healthy food, the health of residents in the food deserts — stretches of the city without grocery stores — is significantly worse than in neighborhoods with higher income and greater access to healthy options, according to Baltimore Health Department statistics.
For example, life expectancy in North Baltimore’s Roland Park neighborhood is 20 years greater than life expectancy in low-income Upton. The death rate due to heart disease in Upton is three times the rate in Roland Park, and Upton residents are nearly five times as likely to die from diabetes as residents in Roland Park.
“For poor people, it’s hard to get access to food,” said Sandler. “For middle-class people, it’s no problem.”