Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen told WYPR Healthwatch that one in four of the city’s senior citizens lives in a food desert. Because food choice “is predicated on privilege,” the city’s health department has been working on two programs that increase senior access to healthy food, the Virtual Supermarket and Healthy Corner Stores programs.
Both programs are expanding in part to a $750,000 grant from the AARP Foundation as well as $150,000 from the Maryland Community Health Resources Commission in 2017.
With the support of our partners and generous organizations like AARP Foundation, we can invest in solutions to the critical issue of food access and work together to level the playing field so that our older adults can choose healthy options to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease,” said Wen in a grant announcement.
Virtual Supermarket allows for residents of 13 buildings to order groceries online without registration or delivery fees. Providing access to healthy food at supermarket prices, especially in neighborhoods where food access is limited, is the goal, according to Baltimarket.org, which started in 2010.
Healthy Corner Stores helps stores buy, stock and supply fresh fruits and vegetables. With the grants, the health department plans hopes to add 40 more stores to the roster of 17.
Increasing Low-Income Family Access to Healthy Food
The state grant also helps the health department provide technical assistance to help stores implement federal SNAP/food stamp changes, and employ young residents as community health educators, to increase interest in and access to healthy food by low-income families.
On Healthwatch, Wen noted that corner stores may have questions about refrigeration or they may want to test smaller quantities of fresh produce to see if their customers will buy them.
By partnering with the No Boundaries Coalition, the grant-funded health department program can provide the corner stores opportunities to buy the produce in smaller quantities at bulk prices. The Coalition developed a partnership with local growers for collective produce buying among corner store owners.
“According to the 2015 Food Access Report, 1 in 4 city residents live in a food desert. Central West Baltimore is a food desert. The ratio of retailers that sell alcohol and fresh produce is 10:1. In 21217 there are 178 locations to buy tobacco. Food quality is so low and options are so limited that 70 percent of residents surveyed have to leave the neighborhood to buy their groceries. Our food environment has led to high rates of chronic disease and this environment must be redefined,” according to the Coalition’s food justice brochure.
The health department has found that overall,
community members are seeking healthy produce and at the same time many of our corner want to do the right thing,” said Wen.
Watch the online PSA featuring young educators: “If you want to get ahead, eat a healthy snack instead.”