BALTIMORE – Towanda and Nancy Brinson stood, confused, in front of the entrance to the largest corner store in Washington Village, the modest, family-owned Shop N’ Go Food Mart.
There was a sign on the door that said the store was closed, even though it was still Saturday afternoon and the store in this Southwest Baltimore neighborhood normally closes at 9 p.m. That meant Towanda Brinson couldn’t buy the bus pass she needed to get to work early the next morning. And if she had needed food, she couldn’t have bought that either.
It’s a small slice of the problem the mother and daughter face every day in their neighborhood, also known as Pigtown — an enclave of rowhouses to the west of downtown Baltimore that is home to primarily low-income people.
Washington Village/Pigtown ranks in the bottom third of Baltimore’s 55 neighborhoods for life expectancy and heart disease, according to the city health department. It ranks 30th among city neighborhoods for the number of diabetes cases. All of these markers are linked to high rates of obesity, which is on the rise in Baltimore.
Public health officials say that easy access to good food would improve people’s lives. But in Washington Village — as in many Baltimore neighborhoods — that’s a struggle.
Like many people in Washington Village/Pigtown, the Brinsons don’t have a car, so they walk or take buses. And they have to plan every purchase in advance, because the neighborhood lacks a grocery store. There used to be a Safeway nearby but that closed last January.
“We have to catch the bus or a hack (unlicensed taxi) and sometimes it takes two days depending on what we want to get,” Nancy Brinson said.
When Towanda Brinson was diagnosed with type II diabetes about six months ago, she became part of a growing problem in the neighborhood.
“I’m trying to lose weight but it’s hard,” Towanda Brinson said. “I’m used to one thing, eat, eat, eat. Now I’ve just got to cut down.”
A 2010 Baltimore City health disparities report card shows that black people are twice as likely as white people to be obese, contributing to an overall higher rate of mortality.
But researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health wanted to look more closely at that statistic. They came to Washington Village, one of the rare neighborhoods in the country with a roughly equal mix of black and white residents with similar incomes. When they studied women of the same socioeconomic status, they found similar odds of obesity in black residents and their white neighbors.
“When it comes to obesity, it’s not a race story, it’s a story about the environments in which people live,” said Sara Bleich, an assistant professor and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, who studied neighborhood women and released a report about it in 2009.
“The findings are really promising because race is obviously something that can’t be changed,” Bleich said. “But the research shows that you can change environments and maybe there’s something you can do to actually have an impact on obesity.”
What city health department employees and public health researchers have determined is that obesity in Washington Village/Pigtown is caused by more than eating too much and exercising too little. At base, people there live in an environment where being healthy is not encouraged.
The nearest full-sized grocery store for residents is about two miles away. One of the closest grocers is the Whole Foods store in Harbor East, where prices can be hard on the budget.
What is available in Washington Village/Pigtown is pre-packaged food like candy, soda and chips. Those items can be found in the dollar store, in the corner stores and in some shops.
The neighborhood wasn’t always so barren. Terry Smith, 54, has lived in the neighborhood he insists on calling by its traditional name, Pigtown, since 1977. He remembers many places in which he could shop for food and groceries.
“When I first moved into the neighborhood, there was a grocery store called Papa’s.” Smith recalls. “It was one of those grocery stores that had delivery guys. You would shop and they would deliver it in a box to your house.”
But those stores are gone. Today, people are trying a variety of ways to create changes for the better — from the corner store to the coffee shop and the city-run Virtual Supermarket Project, which lets residents order groceries and have them delivered to libraries without having to pay a delivery fee.
Inside the Shop N’ Go Food Mart on Washington Boulevard., Kalpana Patel said she and her husband improved the food the store offers after they purchased it six years ago.
“It wasn’t that much grocery,” Patel said about the previous stock merchandise. “It was lots of candy.”
Patel said she added more staples, including canned foods, cereal and baby food. She also began accepting coupons from participants in WIC, a federal program that provides checks for mothers to buy infant formula, milk and some food staples.
But the only fresh produce the corner store stocks is kept in a glass pie-plate in front of the cash register: A single bunch of bananas.
Which gets to the larger question in this neighborhood: Do people want to buy what’s good for them”
“I buy a banana now and then,” said Randall James, 22, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1993. “Nobody (in the neighborhood) really does buy fresh fruit.”
Laura Fox is trying to influence people to choose more healthy options. She runs the city’s Virtual Supermarket Project.
Residents can order on Monday afternoons at the Washington Village branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, then return on Tuesdays to pay for and pick-up their goods, all without having to pay a delivery fee.
But the program has been on shaky financial ground for two months, after a federal grant of $60,000 ran out. The Baltimore Health Department covered the cost for several weeks, until Fox secured a new grant of $100,000. With it, Fox has big plans to hire a community organizer and increase advertising for the service.
“I tell my friends about it,” Juhneer(cq) White, a customer, said. “What they need to do is advertise more. A lot of people don’t know about virtual groceries.”
Right now, the program has 29 regular customers in two locations: in Washington Village/Pigtown and in a neighborhood in East Baltimore.
“There’s advertisements for the program on the inside of about 50 percent of the city buses,” Fox said. “We have a public service announcement out right now…and now that we have the grant we can definitely get the word out more.”
Across from the corner store, Mike Muniz, who manages the coffee shop named Perfecto, sells cups of carrot sticks and apple slices each day with a small amount of dip. He knows it’s not perfectly healthy, but he says it’s a start.
“Take a look at this area,” Muniz said. “There’s really nothing around here.”
Terry Smith agrees and said that, while he can buy a can of soup at an area corner store, there’s no place to buy the fresh produce and ingredients to make a healthy stew. Over time, he said, the lack of fresh food has affected the health of his neighbors.
Amber Nelson, a children’s book author and artist who lives just around the corner, works out of the coffee shop nearly every day. Instead of planning her trips to the grocery store, she and her boyfriend often end up eating out.
“We spend $700 to $1,000 eating out a month right here on this street,” Nelson said, who eats at a neighborhood restaurant, Steel Drum Cafe, about twice a day. “I don’t think the average person here can afford that.”
The Brinsons say the quickest way to improve their health would be to have a full grocery store in their neighborhood. They said they would buy better food if only they could get to it.
“It would help a lot,” Nancy Brinson said. “To get healthy stuff, to have access to it a lot quicker. I used to walk to Safeway but now you have to go so far….”