BALTIMORE – It’s not that there’s no food in Washington Village. It’s just here, as in so many Baltimore neighborhoods, the options are limited.
There’s a rotisserie chicken place, an Ethiopian restaurant, and a few corner stores stocked with canned goods, bags of chips and Little Debbie cakes.
But researchers believe if that inventory changed, corner stores could help Baltimoreans be healthier.
“We’re asking stores to stock a wider range of foods that would be acceptable culturally and economically as alternatives to the food people are already consuming,” said Dr. Joel Gittelsohn, a public health researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The story is the same in other parts of Baltimore. Public health researchers have a name for city areas that lack a grocery store to provide fresh produce and whole-grain foods: food deserts.
City health officials estimate that as much as 30 percent of Baltimore qualifies as a food desert.
If chips and soda or a value meal from the local fast-food place are the only options, that’s what residents eat. A consistently poor diet leads to consistently poor health, health officials and researchers say.
“If you live in a neighborhood where you have fewer supermarkets, your risk of obesity is higher. If you live in a neighborhood with more fast-food restaurants, your risk of obesity is higher,” said Dr. Sara Bleich, a Johns Hopkins researcher.
In 2006, Gittelsohn and a team of researchers conducted a trial program to find out if helping corner stores stock healthier foods can make a difference in how people in the neighborhood eat.
Gittelsohn and his team worked on a small scale, involving only 18 stores, nine in East Baltimore and nine in West Baltimore. Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, researchers provided some storeowners with gift cards of $24 to $40 to be used at local wholesalers to stock healthier options like baked chips, low-fat milk and fruit. Other stores participated without incentives.
The question researchers wanted answered was, if you provide healthy food, will anyone buy it?
Gittelsohn found that in Baltimore the biggest hurdle was perception.
“There’s a bit of an ideological impasse,” Gittelsohn said, “where the supplier thinks there’s no demand and the people who provide the demand don’t see the supply.”
Gittelsohn’s program, Baltimore Healthy Stores, began by talking to residents, community groups and store owners to see what people really thought. In the end, he found that getting healthier foods into the stores and then advertising the new offerings could work.
Four years after the program, some stores continued to stock healthier foods, and customers have continued to buy.
For Grace Lyo, the owner of a corner store in West Baltimore, the Baltimore Healthy Stores program has made a difference. She now keeps tomatoes, oranges, grapes, even a couple of pineapples. She goes through two large boxes of bananas each week.
She says it’s usually young children who eat the bananas, often purchased with coupons from WIC, the federal food assistance program for women, infants and children.
While Lyo displays her produce prominently and proudly, she still sells far more bags of chips or bottles of soda than she does apples or oranges.
One recent afternoon, a teenage boy with headphones in his ears came into the store, said hello to Ms. Grace, as the neighbors call her, then purchased three bags of chips, ramen noodles, sport drinks and soda.
He used an orange Independence Card, from Maryland’s Electronic Benefits Program. Lyo said this is a regular occurrence.
Lyo thinks that if she keeps stocking the healthy food and keeps talking to her customers about how healthy food is better for them, their habits eventually will change. She said she tries to talk to the teenager who bought the junk food, but he just doesn’t listen.
Lyo’s store used to be a closed store, like many corner stores in Baltimore, a bulletproof window separating Lyo and the merchandise from her customers. She opened the door three years ago so that she could talk to people. Now, only cigarettes are stored behind glass.
She began to learn from her neighbors about their health problems, with high blood pressure and diabetes atop the list. When Gittelsohn’s team approached her to participate in the project, she felt it would be a good opportunity to help her customers.
But Lyo’s store is just one of hundreds in Baltimore. Gittelsohn knows that for significant change the program would need a much wider reach.
“What you see is small, incremental improvement in availability and demand,” Gittelsohn said. “The kind of change that you would hope to see, you need to first see more systemic change in more than just a few stores.”
Gittelsohn and his team are now working on similar trial projects to bring healthier food to fast-food and corner stores around recreation centers, in carry-outs, and in churches.
Gittelsohn and other researchers have made recommendations to the Baltimore City Planning Department, which is overseeing an overhaul of the city’s zoning code for the first time in 40 years. The researchers want the code to require stores and restaurants in what he calls high-risk areas — including food deserts and the areas near schools — to carry healthy food.
“What we’re talking about is incentivizing or enforcing restrictions on existing food sources in the community,” Gittelsohn said.
Gittelsohn and his team believe it will be easier and less expensive to change Baltimoreans’ eating habits by working with the infrastructure, such as corner stores, that exists in food deserts — instead of trying to build new grocery stores or create new farmers’ markets.
“Sure, we’d like everybody to switch immediately from soft drinks to water,” he said. “But is it going to happen overnight? I’m more of an incrementalist.