Food Deserts

Baltimore City residents aim to end food deserts by keeping food local

Caleb Lin's backyard garden thrives in December.

The backyard garden of Caleb Lin continues to grow during the colder days over December. Lin is still growing peppers, carrots, basil, mint, and many other herbs.

Sarah Jean Alexander
November 29, 2011

Many Baltimore City citizens are adopting a new approach to sustainable living and smart eating in an effort to win the fight against food deserts. Backyard gardens, potted plants and shared community plots are helping pave the way to healthier lifestyles for the residents living in these low-income areas.

Caleb Lin, a resident of Reservoir Hill, began growing his own produce in the small yard behind his rowhome this summer with his three roommates.

“We built a raised bed out back and planted various tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers, beans, basil, strawberries, mint, squash and carrots,” Lin says. “We were also growing a bunch of herbs, loofas and more tomatoes on our rooftops.”

Lin said his interest in growing his own food peaked at a young age as he watched friends show up to school everyday with the same lunch—a bag of chips, a can of soda, and a bologna sandwich.

“I understood that some families couldn’t afford the money or time needed on healthier food options,” Lin said, “and I decided that I wasn’t going to let this country’s poor standard for acceptable, everyday foods affect the ways I feed myself.”

Lin lives in one of the many areas in Baltimore that is considered a food desert, a low-income area in which the residents do not own a vehicle and live at least a mile away from the nearest supermarket or grocery store.  The Department of Agriculture shows that there are over 6,500 food-desert census tracts in the continental U.S., and over 75 percent are in urban areas.

Infographic 1While some people who live within a food desert tract do have access to a vehicle, this still leaves over 13.5 million people in both rural and urban areas who have to travel over a mile by foot to do their grocery shopping.

Infographic 2Though Baltimore has two Whole Foods and a handful of Safeways, Giants and small food markets that are conservatively scattered around the city, many residents rely solely on corner stores to do the bulk of their shopping.

Holly Freishtat, the Food Policy Director for the Baltimore Department of Planning, said increasing the number of corner stores in neighborhoods isn’t the answer to the city’s food problems.

“The focus needs to remain on improving the quality of food in these low-income areas,” Freishtat said. “The corner stores should be able to provide more than just sodas and sugary snacks to their customers.”

As the city’s food policy director, Freishtat is also working to reduce urban blight by converting vacant land to urban farms through new policy and permitting. This year alone, the department has leveraged $24, 000 for an urban farming training program that will help secure farmland within the city into 2013.

Cheryl Casciani, Director of Neighborhood Sustainability and Chair of the Baltimore Commission on Sustainability, said the Office of Sustainability has issued a request for proposals for city residents to start personal, urban farms on city-owned land.

“This move will help individuals learn or re-learn old techniques of healthy eating,” Casciani said. “As people get older, they often forget that growing their own foods is a rewarding and somewhat simple task that is extremely beneficial to their own health and the health of their loved ones.”

Casciani also pressed the idea of community connectedness that she said comes hand-in-hand with shared neighborhood gardens.

“Changing the way we interact with our neighbors isn’t only healthy for our bodies,” Casciani said. “It is also extremely vital to the health of Baltimore’s future.”

Rachel Fauber spent a lot of her time this past year with the Baltimore Food Makers, a small organization that puts on potlucks and workshops focusing on food sustainability. Fauber, a communication associate who lives in Bolton Hill, tries to live a sustainable lifestyle, but understands that this can be tough for many city residents.

“We’ve got busy lives, limited space and very little green surroundings in a lot of Baltimore neighborhoods,” Fauber said. “It’s easy to walk down the aisles of Safeway and toss things in a cart, but it’s a lot more gratifying to make a loaf of bread from scratch or churn your own butter.”

Through meetings with the Food Makers, Fauber has picked up practical knowledge such as brewing beer, making sausage, curing meat, roasting coffee and canning foods. She said learning the skills her great-grandparents once knew help her to live a more self-sufficient life.

Fauber agrees with Freishtat that food deserts are one of Baltimore’s biggest plights when it comes to healthy eating.

“Even Bolton Hill, which is a pretty affluent neighborhood, doesn’t have anything other than a Save a Lot,” Fauber said. “We need to bring fresh food to low-income communities by getting real grocery stores or having farmers markets, which not only brings in fresh food, but helps people to feel more connected to their neighbors, and ultimately, their home.”

Infographic 3

Related stories

Neighborhood gardens engaging residents with healthy food options

Red chili peppers thriving at Whitelock Community FarmCommunity farms have been gaining popularity and support over the past decade in low-income areas of Baltimore City. Local residents are taking the initiative to transform vacant lots and empty patches of earth into sustainable, user-friendly gardens. Click here to read the entire story.

Baltimore communities benefiting from local food co-ops

A vendor at Whitelock Community Farm selling produceFood co-ops in Baltimore City are offering food discounts and free produce in exchange for hands-on farming and financial support. Click here to read the entire story.


A Youtube video slideshow of the Whitelock Community Farm.

Elisa Lane, farm manager of the Whitelock Community Farm, Click here to watch a video on the Whitelock Community Farm.discusses the relevance of volunteer community gardens and co-ops in Baltimore City. Click here to watch the video.

An interactive map of locations to buy and grow local foods.

Click here to see a map of farmers markets, food co-ops and community gardens in Baltimore.A map of farmers markets, community gardens and food co-ops Baltimore. Click here for a larger view.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s