BALTIMORE — A volunteer handed Mary Nolan a large blue bag over the counter of an abandoned seafood vendor at Baltimore’s Avenue Market during a Fresh Beets event on Saturday.
Behind her was the normal bustle of the market, and the sound of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.”
The 67-year-old from West Baltimore hefted the bag, filled with a colorful assortment of fruits and vegetables, over her shoulder.
The week’s worth of produce, which included avocados, carrots, bok choy and strawberries, would typically costs between $30 and $40, but Nolan, who receives money from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP — also known as food stamps — only pays $7, a deal she can’t get elsewhere in West Baltimore at that price or quality.
Organized by West Baltimore resident-led advocacy group No Boundaries Coalition, the Fresh Beets series blends nutritional awareness, music from local bands and low-cost produce into an engaging Saturday event.
Held on select Saturdays in the fall with nonprofit partner and produce supplier Gather Baltimore, Fresh Beets’ main event is the pop-up produce stand. There, bags of produce that can feed a family of four for a week are priced at just $7, and bags with half the produce, at $4.
Tiffany Welch, the No Boundaries Coalition healthy food access and food justice organizer, created the event in an attempt to tackle one of West Baltimore residents’ biggest problems — access to a variety of fresh and healthy food.
Categorized as a food desert, West Baltimore is known for its limited options for fresh produce, Welch said.
According to a June 2015 study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, 25 percent of Baltimore City’s overall population lives in a food desert.
District 7 includes the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood and the Avenue Market, and is where Freddie Gray lived and was arrested before his death in April.
In that district, 47 percent of people live in a food desert — a place without access to fresh, healthy and affordable foods — the second-highest percentage within all of Baltimore. The study also showed that African Americans are five times as likely to live in a food desert in the district and account for 55.3 percent of those living in the area without sufficient food access.
Out of the six public markets in Baltimore, Avenue Market is the only one without consistent produce. In West Baltimore, grocery stores are outnumbered by liquor stores 10 to 1, and in Welch’s neighborhood, Sandtown-Winchester, liquor stores outnumber grocery stores 16 to 1 according to a study done by No Boundaries Coalition.
The disparity between the number of fast food restaurants and restaurants that offer healthy options in West Baltimore seem to be even greater, said Welch.
“It’s kind of hard to get good food. You can get fried chicken and all that though. But everything else, it’s hard,” said Derrick Taylor, armed with two bags full of produce, one for his mother, the other for his grandmother.
The 37-year-old has been to the past three Fresh Beets events, which he credits for expanding his taste buds and getting him to eat healthier.
“I tasted some vegetables I never tasted before. I liked them, too,” said Taylor, who tried eggplant for the first time during Fresh Beets, and said he has since experimented with beets and dandelions in smoothies.
Another obstacle West Baltimoreans face is accessibility and transportation.
With fewer than 30 percent of residents owning cars, some grocery stores and markets are hard to access, Welch said, so many people just opt for what’s available at nearby corner stores. For those who do have access to grocery stores and markets, the quality is often disappointing, Welch said.
Seventy percent of stores within District 7 have a very low Healthy Food Availability Index Score, according to the 2015 Mapping Baltimore’s City’s Food Environment Report.
“We’ve noticed the quality in other communities are better. There’s a noticeable difference between the cleanliness of the store, freshness of the products and the friendliness of the employees,” said Welch, who works with the Baltimore Public Markets Corp. to expand the produce options and improve the quality in local markets in the area.
Director of Baltimore Public Markets Corp. Robert Thomas has been trying to attract potential tenants and vendors to come in to the public markets and provide the quality and variety of produce desired by Baltimore residents.
“The key for us is establishing viable partnerships, so that we can actually get it done,” Thomas said.
As a diabetic, Nolan’s diet requires her to eat healthier, but the streets leading up to the grocery stores she normally goes to in West Baltimore are discouraging, lined with restaurants serving fast foods that are fried or high in calories. And the quality and prices of food in nearby grocery stores in West Baltimore are just as discouraging, often causing her to take as many as two buses to a grocery store that has better quality options within her budget.
But with Avenue Market’s choice to team up with No Boundaries Coalition for Fresh Beets, Nolan said she might have found her best choice.
“Unlike the prices in the market, (where) their prices are too high and you don’t know how long it’s been there — here, you know what you’re getting,” Nolan said.
Fresh Beets has completely sold out of produce at the past three events held in September and October, and Saturday was no exception.
Falling on a National Food Day, the Saturday event also featured a series of health demos and nutritional recipes offered by the University of Maryland Extension School and Baltimore City Health Department, teaching residents how to transform purchased produce into healthy meals.
The event also aims to promote engagement and overall health in the community, and hosted a chili cook-off with community residents, a fruit giveaway hosted by Whole Foods, health screenings and rapid HIV-testing by Chase Brexton Health Care.
Fresh Beets’ next events are scheduled to take place on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. with a Halloween theme called “Hallow Eat”, and Nov. 21, where No Boundaries Coalition will partner with Hungry Harvest to transform Avenue Market into a farmer’s market. Guests will have the opportunity to participate in a $3 all-you-can-carry market to prepare for the holidays.
The series is set to conclude on Dec. 5, but Welch said the long-term goal is to have consistent produce available inside of the market six days a week.
For more information on Fresh Beets and No Boundaries Coalition, please visit the No Boundaries Coalition website.