Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore's Mayor, has said that one of her "priorities is to increase access to healthy affordable food in Baltimore City food deserts." The 2015 Baltimore Food Environment Map Report outlines the sheer magnitude of this task - of the approximately 621,000 people living in Baltimore, 25 percent (30 percent of kids) live in food deserts. In addition, African Americans have significantly less access to healthy food compared to other ethnic groups and are the most likely to live in a food desert neighborhood.
So for every designated food desert, the distance to a supermarket or supermarket alternative is more than 1/4 mile, the median household income is at or below 185% of the Federal Poverty Level, over 30% of households have no vehicle available, and the average Healthy Food Availability Index (HFAI) score for all food stores is low.
It seems dire. But the Mayor understands that "food is a catalyst for economic development" and on Monday announced her plans to encourage private investment in the city's food deserts. Rawlings-Blake plans to forgive 80% of grocery store owners’ property tax bill for ten years if they build a new supermarket or improve an existing, smaller store within a quarter-mile of a food desert. It's a thoughtful approach, and one that seeks to address criticisms over food desert initiatives that plop still out-of-reach and/or culturally inappropriate stores into an area simply because they've been deemed a food desert. Not only that, it's coupled with investments in nutrition assistance programs and other resources that seek to expand access to healthy foods.
Lucky for Baltimore, there are great organizations and experts working on these issues. The Baltimore Food Policy Initiative (BFPI) and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future has called for this type of action and are working in close collaboration with the Mayor. Only time will tell how these types of economic incentives drive purchasing habits and ultimately, what food ends up on the table.
For a city that's been through more than their fair share of riots and unrest, I leave you with the Mayor's hope:
"This credit is a critical tool in attracting and retaining high quality retailers in Baltimore’s food deserts, and providing residents with the food access they want and need."