Food security is not something I have regularly thought of as a pertinent issue in my life. Growing up in Pikesville, Maryland, grocery stores were readily available and easily accessible by vehicle. However, just down the street, across the city line, and in other parts of Baltimore County and City as well, approximately 22% of Baltimore City residents live in a food desert. A food desert is a geographic area composed of low-income residents who do not have access to healthy foods including produce, whole grains, and low-fat milk.
Hunger and malnutrition affects a person’s ability to learn and slows cognitive development, and can leave a body to illness and negative health outcomes such as diabetes, coronary disease, or childhood obesity. As of 2012, 1 in 4 of Baltimore’s African-American residents lived in a food desert and 22.6 % of the Baltimore City population was food insecure. In confluence with the median household income, 18.5 % of the population are at or below the Federal Poverty Level, and over 30% of households have no vehicle available, 49 million Americans nationwide are living in food insecure households. Additionally, in Maryland, 10.1 % of the 2.3 million families living here faced food insecurity from 2014 to 2016, and 13.3 % of families did not have enough to eat from 2011 to 2013, according to the Department of Agriculture. The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health conducted studies using GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping which found that 86% of the city is not served by grocery stores within a 20 minute walking distance. Furthermore, all of Baltimore’s large-scale grocery stores are located in middle to high income areas and approximately 42% of low income areas and 62% of high income areas of the city experience food deserts.
Fresh produce can be expensive and families who are already struggling financially aren’t inclined to spend the extra money on vegetables, knowing their kids may not eat it at all. This is where fast food chains help exacerbate food deserts and contribute to the overall problem, as the options there are not healthy. The way Baltimore is currently laid out and handled, food insecurity will only continue to be perpetuated and food aid programs unfortunately can not solve all concerns with food insecurity. Furthermore, this problem is more prevalent among historically oppressed peoples within this country where 22.5 % of black family households are food insecure, 18.5 % of Hispanic households do not get enough to eat, and over 22 % of American Indian adults face food insecurity. In some areas, food insecurity rates for indigenous children reach about 40%. This is not a new problem, and the Covid-19 pandemic is only increasing the demands on food banks across the country, reminding us that millions of children need school to provide at least one meal a day.
Farmers also live on the margins, and we rely on farmworkers with varied immigration status. As of 2016, in Baltimore county alone, there were 27,000 children experiencing food insecurity, the food insecurity rate for children was 15.2%, and 41% of those children are ineligible for federal nutrition programs. Within Baltimore City county, 29,060 children experienced food insecurity, with an overall children rate of 22.2% with 29% ineligible for federal nutrition programs.
Food programs and non profit organizations do help in many cases, but it is really only a band aid that has to be replaced, replenished, and funded annually, if not monthly. Policy alterations will serve as actionable change for communities most vulnerable. Legislation needs to address the needs for long term change. In 2008, the Baltimore City Office of Sustainability drafted a plan for food security which resulted in the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative and the subsequent Food Policy Task Force. Then a year later, the Task Force released a series of groundbreaking recommendations, paving the way for the Healthy Baltimore 2015 plan. Ideally, a change within legislation and community leaders’ priorities is what Baltimore needs, and those around with privilege, who have never experienced food insecurity, like myself, need to understand what policies are necessary to enact.
Sources: ESRI, Baltimore City Health Department, Johns Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future, The Baltimore Sun, National Association of County and City Health Officials , United Way of Central Maryland, Mapping Kat, Feeding America