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Combating the Urban Food Desert

Amanda Behrens

Amanda Behrens

From food production to consumption, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) is looking for sustainable alternatives to improve public health and the health of the environment, says Amanda Behrens, MPH, MS, senior program officer at the CLF.

Behrens discussed the impact of food deserts on local communities at a UM Go Green-sponsored sustainability workshop on Feb. 7.

Although there’s no definitive definition of a food desert, Behrens offered the CLF’s:

“An area where the distance to a supermarket is more than one quarter of a mile; the median household income is at or below 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level; over 40 percent of households have no vehicle available; and the average Healthy Food Availability Index score for supermarkets, convenience, and corner stores is low.”

In collaboration with Baltimore City’s Office of Sustainability, the CLF recently released the Baltimore City Food Environment Map.   

The map identifies food deserts and illustrates access to supermarkets, public markets, farmers markets, and virtual supermarkets.

Some conclusions the map draws are that 20 percent of Baltimore City residents live in a food desert (That’s ¼ of all school-age children and ¼ of all African-Americans living in Baltimore.), says Behrens, and 36 percent of Baltimore neighborhoods have a food desert in them.  

Moreover, there’s a correlation between poverty and obesity, she says. Baltimore City currently has a 20-year gap between the life expectancies of the wealthiest and poorest residents.

People who live in food deserts have access to more unhealthy food options, often found at corner stores and carry out restaurants, rather than healthy food options. Farmers markets are a good way to address these issues, says Behrens, although they have limited hours of operations compared to food stores.

“Our goal is not only to look at the impact of our food system on nutrition and environmental health,” says Behrens, “but to make improvements by offering alternative sustainable solutions.”  

Some steps the CLF is taking include creating a rural food desert measure, collecting environmental impact data (of different production systems), understanding local agriculture better, creating alternative scenario maps, and looking at healthy food demand and purchasing from farms to institutions (schools, universities, hospitals, and the state government).  

In addition to researching the local food system, the CLF also is working on the following initiatives:

  • Farming for the future: sustainable alternatives
  • Teaching the food system: high school curricula
  • Eating for the future: food policy and access issues
  • Food environment: relationship between demographics and available foods
  • Food production and processing: Maryland farms and businesses

For additional food map resources, click here.

Story by Tracy Gnadinger