Imagine living in an area where the only sources of food within blocks are canned products bought through plexiglass partitions, from seedy corner joints, or convenience stores.
Imagine, no matter how much you try to improve your eating habits, the only foods readily available are high in sodium and low in nutrition.
Now imagine you have diabetes or hypertension, and there are no real grocery stores within a reasonable distance.
You live in a food desert.
And you aren't alone.
According recently published U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures, residents in more than 6,500 U.S. communities are without adequate access to food resources. An estimated 100 of those neighborhoods are in Baltimore alone.
"Access to healthy, affordable food should not be dictated by your zip code,” said BFPI Director Holly Freishtat. “That we know of, 125,000 people live in food deserts in Baltimore City. We know that 105,000 of them are African Americans.”
The BFPI works in conjunction with other government agencies to offer better resources to those in need of healthier food options in city food deserts.
According to the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, food deserts are places where 40 percent of residents have no vehicle, live below the national poverty level, and have to travel more than a quarter of a mile to get to the nearest supermarket.
Freishtat said that current BFPI tactics to fight the issue “range from public markets, to getting SNAP benefits at farmer's markets, and virtual supermarkets.”
Two years ago the Baltimore City Health Department began offering virtual
supermarkets where residents could order food online and pick up their purchases at local libraries.
The program has since evolved and moved away from a focus on library pick-ups to online ordering and home deliveries in public and senior disability housing.
The virtual supermarket is the first in the country to offer residents the ability to order online and use Independence Cards to purchase goods at time of delivery. Freishtat said this model eliminates the notion that “home delivery is only for the wealthy.”
“It is now for all income levels,” she said.
Transportation is a key component to the health of those who live in food deserts, as there are limitations to how many groceries one can carry using public buses, subways, and trains.
"You can see from the study that in tracts have been designated as food deserts there is persistently a higher rate of households that have no vehicle access," said Paula Dutko, lead author of the USDA report, Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts. “It does seem to play a role in being able to access supermarkets and sources of other healthy foods.”
Of the 6,529 food deserts identified, 4,175 were in urban areas and 2,204 were located in rural parts of the country.
Like the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative (BFPI), KidzTable has a goal of putting an end to the food deserts located within city limits.
"In Baltimore 1 in 5 residents don’t have easy access to healthy foods,” said Teresa Eaton, director of communications for St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore. “This is particularly alarming when you think of the children and how two of every three children in Baltimore are overweight.”
St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore currently operates KidzTable, a program begun in September 2010 that focuses on eliminating obesity among the young. The initiative offers healthy meals on a daily basis to 5,000 city children in afterschool programs, day care centers, schools, and camps.
Next month the program will open a new facility in Hollander Business Park and double its operations.