In Baltimore, fighting the “food desert” phenomenon, one delivery at a time

Foodwise Baltimore: Getting healthy food into communities where fresh produce and cooking ingredients are scarce.

Baltimarket_ Tara Gephardt_Santoni Driver_Marlena Neal_happy customer

In Cherry Hill, driver Tara Gephardt delivers groceries to Marlena Neal as part of the Baltimarket program.

Photo by: Francine Halvorsen

Imagine living two miles from a market where you can get fresh fruit and vegetables and you don’t have a car. Imagine living in a community where there are convenience stores, but no place to buy ingredients for preparing and cooking healthy meals at home.

A city-sponsored program called Baltimarket has the imagination to see how much better things can be and has set up a kind of virtual supermarket for Baltimore’s neediest neighborhoods.

Residents who qualify for the program, run by the city health department, can order food online and have it delivered to one of four central locations. I stopped in at the Cherry Hill Library recently to watch the process and found that it seems to put not just customers but employees in a good mood.

“I think virtual supermarkets are the way to go,” said Eric Jackson, who grew up in Cherry Hill. “Even though people order separately, they get together at pick-up time and it is very social. Food is very social and very important to communities.”

Jackson, a community organizer whose postgraduate studies focused on food availability and distribution, said he found the gig through the website Sustainable Food Jobs.

No City Funds Involved

Baltimarket’s small operation (one part-time and two full-time employees) was launched in March 2010 with stimulus money from the American Recovery Investment Act and is now operating with grants from the Walmart Foundation ($100,000) and the United Way of Central Maryland ($55,250). They receive no city or state funding, said program coordinator Laura Fox.

Right now the program has 156 customers, according to Fox, who said they have placed close to $26,000 in purchases over 20 months.

Santoni’s Super Market, a partner in the project, provides a food delivery system in which drivers accept EBT, credit and debit cards, as well as cash. There is no delivery charge to the customer (Santoni waived the fee). It seems to work out for both parties: the supermarket gets repeat customers and the communities they deliver to are able to buy healthy food at competitive prices.

 The delivery van that brings fresh produce and groceries to be distributed at the Cherry Hill Library. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

The delivery van that brings fresh produce and groceries to be distributed at the Cherry Hill Library. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Along with the Cherry Hill library, their delivery spots are George Washington Elementary School in Washington Village, and the Orleans Street and Washington Village branches of the Enoch Pratt Library.

The neighborhoods were chosen with particular criteria in mind. They had to be more than a mile from a supermarket, have a low-income and low-vehicle-ownership profile, and report a high level of health related problems.

Anyone living in the neighborhoods served by these four food drop-off points can order their food from any computer. No invasive questioning takes place, Fox said.

Each location has a day and time for food pick up. Santoni’s brings a card swiper and accepts payment on location.

There is no limit to what can be ordered, though there is a $25 minimum for the first order that is waived, if necessary, on future orders. There is also a $10 discount coupon for the first order and every four orders thereafter. If used, that means $120 of free food.

Strengthening Communities

Fox had high praise for Santoni’s owner Rob Santoni, saying he was receptive to their proposal right away. “Other markets wanted a strict $50 minimum per order and would not reduce delivery fees,” she said. “He believes in strengthening communities.”

Tiombe Mitchell, an assistant in the program,  said she also finds a sense of community in the work. “I was a student and stay-at-home mom, and I saw an ad for this part-time position on the Great Kids Farm.”

Mitchell said she loves how her job puts her in touch with so many different people. “We talk about the things that matter to us. We connect with each other and share our thoughts and information.”

For instance, during the days-long electricity outages earlier this year, she said, “someone came in and said that BGE was offering some reimbursement for food lost to lack of refrigeration – several people qualified.” Mitchell said she and others with Baltimarket try to bring some healthy snacks when they come to the library.

“Kids come and snack and talk to us,” she said. “It’s not just my community but an extended family.”

(l to r) Baltimarket's Tiombe Mitchell, Laura Fox and Eric Jackson and customer Marlena Neal. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

(l to r) Baltimarket's Tiombe Mitchell, Laura Fox and Eric Jackson and customer Marlena Neal. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

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  • Jed Weeks

    I encourage you to check out programs by Jason Reed, Joyce Smith, and other OSI-Baltimore Community Fellows who are working on these issues as well.

    • Francine Halvorsen

      will do…thank you

  • Marc

    Very inspirational! It’s heartening to see people creatively weaving together a fine network of local retailers and suppliers (Santoni’s, branch libraries, delivery drivers, etc.) to create a useful network of food distribution.

    Baltimore used to have a private network of entrepreneurs making deliveries to households in food deserts – they were called arabbers, and there ain’t many of them left. In some ways I would argue that Baltimarket – awesome as it is – is a solution to a problem caused by gov’t interference. Whatever the complaints over arabbers are/were, they *did* manage to deliver food to poor neighborhoods at reasonable prices without relying on external funding (grants or stimulus money). Their rolling produce/fish markets must have been pretty convenient.

    But I think misguided – even if well-meaning – gov’t policies killed this fine-grained, emergent, private network of food delivery, ultimately requiring charitable companies and nonprofit organizations to step in to solve the mess the city gov’t created/exacerbated. For example, the wholesale produce market was punted over to Jessup to make way for the IH. Zoning ordinances outlawing stables, cumbersome vending applications, pricey licenses, fees, and various other
    bureaucratic procedures
    also helped bring the arabber food delivery network to
    its knees too. Maybe rolling back some of this bureaucracy should be the next focus of the city’s “Food Czar?” Think how much further Baltimarket could go if it had full city support!

    • Francine Halvorsen

      I think you are right about getting food to neighborhoods – one of the difficulties has been avoiding end of the day spoilage of unsold goods. I have long talked about having a couple of refrigerated food trucks that leave from a central location with fresh produce and other food that would go to neighborhoods and sell. Whatever is unsold could then be returned to the clean refrigerated facility and reloaded the next day. It might be a start.

  • Ktrueheart

    Nice …

  • Gerald Neily

    While this is a very worthy endeavor, grocer Rob Santoni is also working to fight the root cause of “food deserts” – the city’s bad business climate largely caused by punitive taxation such as the container tax. Paying a nickel here and there may not seem like much to some people, but to the grocers themselves like Santoni who are directly responsible, it’s a big deal. Those who are able can take their money to any of the many more supermarkets in the suburbs, but many can’t.

  • Chillipoppa

    If the city would provide more support for the Arabbers this delivery issue wouldbe moot.

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