On a mid-July day on Baltimore’s west side, residents of the Mount Clare Overlook development for the elderly and disabled wait in a common area for a delivery. After about 10 minutes a young man bounds in, hoisting flats of bottled water and plastic crates filled with bags of groceries from Santoni’s Super Market, a family-run store on the city’s east side.
For the people of Mount Clare, most of whom are lower-income and don’t have cars, those bags come from another world. The only neighborhood market closed two years ago, says resident William Freeman, who helps out with a program that lets local people order their groceries online and pay on delivery.
It’s part of a citywide initiative designed to address food deserts, neighborhoods devoid of grocery stores or healthful food options. One out of five Baltimore residents lives in a food desert, according to the city. Those 125,000 people are at higher risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
First Lady Michelle Obama has brought the matter to national attention with her Let’s Move! campaign to reduce childhood obesity, which has the elimination of food deserts as a key goal. Cities including New York and San Francisco have hired food-policy directors to expand access to fresh produce, promote farmer’s markets, bring in more grocers, and encourage corner stores to offer healthier fare.
Baltimore has pioneered another solution: bringing a virtual grocery store to those living in food deserts. The program, called Baltimarket, allows shoppers to order groceries online from home or attend sessions at a local public library where they can receive help ordering. A delivery arrives later in the week, with no fee for residents. “There’s a barrier for people to get groceries,” says Laura Fox, Baltimarket’s coordinator. Residents who don’t have cars or live near a supermarket may have to pay hacks, or unlicensed taxis, to take them to and from a store, she says. “If it costs you $15 to go to the grocery store, how much are you going to go?”
Started in March 2010 and supported entirely by private grants from the United Way of Central Maryland, the Aetna Foundation, and the Wal-Mart Foundation, Baltimarket first operated out of public libraries and a school; it’s now expanding to senior living facilities and public housing.
“There was a bit of a learning curve at the beginning, where they didn’t promote it as well and they went to libraries, which just weren’t really good outlets,” says Amanda Behrens, project manager at the Center for a Livable Future, which is part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She helped create a map of Baltimore’s food deserts. “Now they’ve started in senior centers, and that’s been much more successful.”
Baltimarket’s Fox says she aims to have the program operating in all 16 public housing developments located in food deserts in Baltimore. “What’s brilliant about this program is it doesn’t cost a lot of money,” she says.