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Food Deserts and the Policy Power of Maps

It's hard to fix a problem you can't see. So Maryland made its lack of healthy food options very visible.

Food Urban Food Czar
This Wednesday, June 9, 2010 photo shows Holly Freishtat, Baltimore's food policy director, as she walks through an urban grocery store in Baltimore.
(AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
When Anthony Francis’ car got stolen in 2015, he had no way to get to the Price Rite grocery a mile and a half from his home in Highland Park, Baltimore. He searched for a bus route and found there wasn’t one. Cabs weren't a real option on his budget. The only stores nearby were convenience stores that sold packaged foods and instant meals but no “real nutritious food,” he says.

So Francis did the only thing he could: He walked the mile and a half and tried to “buy light.”

“I would buy only the water and milk that I could carry, and then I would trekk it [back home],” Francis says. “I work in construction, and I play basketball, so I’m in pretty good shape. And it wasn’t easy for me, so I can only imagine for other people.”

Francis is one of many Baltimore residents living in areas with little or no access to nutritious food options and grocery stores. About 25 percent of Baltimoreans live in city-designated “food deserts," areas at least a quarter of a mile from a grocery store, where median income is low and many residents lack access to a vehicle.

That's starting to change with the help of a mapping tool from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF).

In partnership with the city, Hopkins researchers created 14 maps that break down food deserts and grocery locations by each council district. Being able to truly see the problem has helped the city address it, says Holy Freishtat, the city's food policy director. Using the maps, the city started offering tax credits in 2016 to food retailers who open or renovate stores in or near food deserts. Shortly after the incentive passed, a grocery store opened in East Baltimore in an area that was previously a designated food desert.

"The maps are really the cornerstone of how we are driving policy," Freishtat says. "It was crucial for us to have numbers, to have need identified in some capacity."

The city has also modified its building code and changed policy to allow hoop houses (less-permanent greenhouses), Freishtat says.

Now, Hopkins researchers are taking their mapping to the next level: This April, they released the Maryland Food System Map, an interactive application and downloadable database with 175 data layers related to food and food access throughout the state. 

“The tool developed organically out of our work in Baltimore City. We realized we could make this data public and help others use it,” says Caitlin Fisher, a program officer at CLF and manager of the Maryland Food System Map Project.

Fisher and her coworkers hope the map is useful to policymakers and organizations working in food access and public health, and that it can act as a model for other states looking to collect this kind of data.

Freishtat thinks the statewide map is already having an impact: HB 1492, a bill signed by the governor in May, authorizes the Department of Housing and Community Development to make small loans to food desert projects in the state.

Despite these developments, it could take a while for residents to feel significant change. Freishtat stresses that this work tackles a small part of a big problem that's tied to issues like poverty and underemployment. 

Francis, who has been a resident of Baltimore for nearly 10 years, says he hasn’t noticed a big difference in his neighborhood yet, but he knows the city is doing work to help. He recently became a resident food equity advisor for the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, which means he’s tasked with identifying specific food access problems in his neighborhood and meeting with other advisors to brainstorm solutions.

For him, the problem is a personal one: He says he hates seeing the kids in his neighborhood walk by on their way to school carrying chips and soda in their hands because they don’t have access to anything else.

“They’re literally just eating junk. I showed a girl a cucumber from my garden and it was like she was confused,” he says. “The lack of food and the condition of the neighborhood is why I started doing this.”

*Correction: A previous version of this article misstated a policy change by Baltimore City. The city changed its building code, not food stamp policy.

Natalie previously covered immigrant communities and environmental justice as a bilingual reporter at CityLab and CityLab Latino. She hails from the Los Angeles area and graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in English literature.
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