General Assembly offers bill to minimize food deserts

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - As co-owner of Apples and Oranges Fresh Market, Michelle Speaks-March’s store has all the colors of the rainbow.

Green peppers, orange peppers, red apples and yellow bananas are just a few of the fresh foods on display at her downtown store.

Located off Broadway in East Baltimore, Apples and Oranges opened in 2013 with one purpose:

To provide healthy food in a part of the city where food deserts exist.

“We created this space to create access not only to good food, but to provide jobs and educational learning,” March said.

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The March’s business model is starting to catch on.

Just weeks before the Maryland General Assembly ends, state officials are hoping to provide financial incentives to organizations interested in opening stores in designated food deserts across the state.

“It’s a statewide proposal,” said Carol Gilbert, Director of Neighborhood Revitalization for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.” Baltimore City accounts for 23 percent of those deserts.”

In HB 451 , DHCD officials have proposed legislation to allow a small business to apply for financial assistance for a project in a food desert.

Gov. Martin O’Malley has also set aside $1 million in the state’s budget for the initiative.

Gilbert said the financial program came out of the Maryland Fresh Food Task Food Task Force in 2012.

“We are hoping this will help not only provide better food options, but also provide more jobs for places that need it,” she said.

Under the proposal, a small business, or nonprofit may apply for financial assistance for a project in a food desert through the Neighborhood Business Development Program of the DHCD.

The potential project has to seek out resources of Maryland-grown produce and foods.

 Amanda Behrens, manager of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s Maryland Food System Mapping Project, said a food desert is defined as a place that  lacks the components needed to allow residents to access healthy foods.

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t food available,” she said. “It just means there aren’t nutritious foods around.”

According to Hopkins research, in Baltimore City, 125,000 people live in a designated desert. Of that population, about 26 percent are African American.

Behrens and her colleagues started mapping food deserts two years ago. Their research caught the attention of city health officials who called the findings “unacceptable.”

Through the mapping project research, Hopkins has partnered with Baltimore City as well as the Baltimore Development Corporation to help coordinate ways to  reduce food deserts.

In the partnerships, Behrens said they have worked with local corner stores in bettering products, encouraged supermarkets to open up in desert areas and work with existing markets to provide better quality foods.

“We are also encouraging farmers markets to start accepting food stamps as a way to help residents link up to these resources,” she said.

Apples and Oranges is one of the first grocery stores in the city to open in a designated desert.

March said the idea for the store came when she was in a grocery store and saw a young woman getting made fun of for using food stamps to buy healthy food.

“That store not only lost her, but lost me as a customer,” she said. “I got on the phone with my husband and asked what we could do about it.”

Through local partnerships,  the couple started putting together  a proposal to open a healthy food store in east Baltimore.

March said that getting funding for the store was hard. Traditional banks thought the concept was too risky. The couple applied for grants and fronted some of the funding on their own.

MAP: Baltimore City food deserts

A year later, March says they are starting to see an impact, but it’s happening slowly. They’ve hired 16 employees and have made the choice not to sell certain soft drinks or fried foods.

“Changing that culture is hard,” she said. “But we are here and are helping start the conversation.”

This summer, Hopkins researchers plan to update the desert maps from 2012.  Behren cautioned that showing reduction in these areas will take longer to calculate.

“We hope that in the future, the maps will shrink as more fresh food becomes accessible to all residents,” she said.

Gilbert  is hopeful the bill will pass the senate, as it did in the House. The session ends in April. 

“This is one step in helping address this issue,” she said.

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