Baltimore's Efforts to Battle Food Deserts

Baltimore's Efforts to Battle Food Deserts

How legislation is bypassing social barriers to introduce healthier food options into urban neighborhoods

One in four of Baltimore residents live in a food desert according to a recent study by the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. The study, which is the first analysis to consider access to a vehicle and the supply of healthy food in all Baltimore food stores in its criteria, found 35 percent of African Americans, compared to 8 percent of Whites, live in food deserts. Neighborhoods with food deserts have higher rates of diet related diseases including cardiovascular disease and diabetes and higher overall mortality rates. And 30 percent of Baltimore’s school-aged children live in neighborhoods considered food deserts. The city is taking this challenge seriously with a number of measures to help ensure all residents have access to healthy nutritious foods.

The city, following in the footsteps of San Francisco and Washington, D.C., recently just approved a property tax break for urban farms operating on less than five acres. This measure largely closes a loophole which provided farms over 5 acres statewide with property tax breaks. The necessarily smaller size of urban farms meant that they were excluded from these benefits. No longer.

The city isn’t stopping there. Urban farms alone cannot sufficiently provide food access to those who need it.

A Community Eligibility Provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 made schools eligible for free meals if 40 percent or more of students came from low-income families. Numerous studies have highlighted the connection between proper nutrition and learning and improved outcomes in school. Free meals could also boost attendance. A new Maryland state program, The Hunger Free Schools Act of 2015 redoubles this effort, ensuring that all public school children in Baltimore will have access to free breakfast and lunch. Because 84 percent of Baltimore students qualified for free or reduced-cost meals last year, it means all Baltimore schools qualify for the program.

Many families and students don’t take advantage of free or reduced meal programs for a variety of reasons, ranging from lack of knowledge to fear of stigmatization. This legislation effectively bypasses these barriers. Ensuring children have access to healthy nutritious meals in schools is particularly important. Studies show that kids who eat healthy perform better in the classroom, and many students get more than half of their daily calories in school. Over 2,000 school districts across the nation are participating in this program, and Baltimore City Public Schools is now the largest participating district.

What is your municipality doing to ensure all have access to healthy food? 

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