Raymond Carr stared at the refrigerated display inside a dollar store in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood. The shelves behind the glass doors were nearly bare that afternoon in late December, save for a handful of offerings, including a lonely bag of frozen mixed vegetables, and a few blocks of cheese, cartons of eggs and containers of turkey breast lunch meat.
Carr flagged down a Family Dollar employee. “Do you have milk?” the 67-year-old retired Army veteran asked.
“If it’s not there, we don’t have it,” the employee answered.
That day, Carr left the dollar store with a meager grocery haul: peanut butter crackers, orange juice and a box of cereal. No milk.
Since PriceRite Marketplace — the only full-service supermarket for Pigtown and surrounding neighborhoods — closed on Dec. 9, grocery shopping has been a challenge for Carr and many other residents of southwestern Baltimore.
Carr said he used to shop at the PriceRite on West Pratt Street three times a week. Now, he’s frequenting dollar stores and convenience stores, which typically stock a limited selection of food at higher prices. Recently, Carr said, he wandered into a CVS Pharmacy in hopes of picking up some food. He was shocked to see cereal being sold for nearly $9 a box.
Carr doesn’t have a car and his two-person household has to stretch $1,100 a month to cover living expenses, he said. PriceRite was one of the least expensive grocery stores around, he said, and he could catch a free bus from his home to the Mount Clare Junction shopping center, where the supermarket was a tenant for the past decade.
“For people who have cars, it’s not as bad, but for people [such as] senior citizens and things, who don’t drive, it’s a big inconvenience,” Carr said. “Especially if they have to get on more than one bus with a shopping cart full of groceries.”
About 146,000 Baltimoreans, or nearly one in four city residents, live in areas with limited access to healthy food, according to a 2018 report. A patchwork of food deserts — also known as healthy food priority areas — spreads across the city, mostly concentrated in the wings of the “Black Butterfly,” a term coined by research scientist Lawrence T. Brown to describe the shape that hyper-segregated Black neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore make on a map.
About 32% of Black Baltimoreans live in a healthy food priority area, compared to 11% of Hispanic residents and 9% of white residents, according to the report. Many who live in those areas have low incomes, lack access to cars and must rely on corner or convenience stores that primarily stock high-calorie, low-nutrient processed foods.
When news of PriceRite’s closing broke in November, Pigtown leaders feared the neighborhood would become a new food desert.
It’s unclear if the surrounding area now meets the technical description of a healthy food priority area, according to Anne Palmer, director of practice at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which put out the 2018 report. In 2015 and 2018, the center created a map of Baltimore City healthy food priority areas. They are defined as places with low healthy food availability, where the median household income was at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, where more than 30% of households didn’t have access to vehicles, and where the distance to a supermarket was more than a quarter of a mile.
Whether Pigtown now fits the exact definition of a food desert is not essential for the bigger picture, Palmer said.
“It’s making a picture that is already difficult even harder,” Palmer said. “Any time a neighborhood loses a supermarket, it’s a community asset and it’s really hard to adjust.”
The reality for retired veteran Carr and an untold number of other residents is that they have been deserted by a supermarket chain, and that one of the most basic building blocks for survival — food — is now more inaccessible than it was a month ago.
Food insecurity is associated with chronic health conditions, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And the stress of living in poverty and being food insecure can have far-reaching effects beyond physical health, according to Palmer.
“You have to think of food in the context of larger issues in people’s lives and how it affects them,” she said. “For kids learning, being food insecure is awful. Can you imagine trying to learn when you’re hungry?”
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a group of protesters gathered outside City Hall, chanting “No more food deserts” and holding signs that urged, “End food apartheid in Baltimore.”
At the protest, Marvin “Doc” Cheatham called out a long list of neighborhoods suffering from food access issues: “Sandtown, Matthew Henson, Harvey Johnson Towers, Gilmor Homes ... Mount Clare Junction, Pigtown and the list goes on and on. Why can’t we help subsidize food markets?”
Food apartheid describes how Pigtown, a mixed-income and minority-white neighborhood, has lost its only supermarket, while about three miles away, Locust Point and Riverside — prosperous and majority-white communities in South Baltimore — recently gained a Giant Food just blocks away from an existing Harris Teeter grocery store. The structural racism that has shaped the housing, banking and education sectors is also at play when it comes to the food environment, according to Palmer.
“It isn’t fair,” she said. “How do we expect people to ever move up the ladder in any way, shape and form and be able to live healthier lives with better access to resources, when we make it so hard all the time?”
‘We have no control of what comes, what goes’
It was December when workers dismantled a massive plastic sign reading “PriceRite Marketplace” from the brick wall of a building. More than 30 employees were affected by layoffs, according to a notice filed by PriceRite with the Maryland Department of Labor. The interior was cleared of goods. A small paper sign posted on the sliding glass doors told customers to visit other locations in Hyattsville and Rosedale.
Andrea Williams, who lives on the outskirts of Pigtown and was a regular at PriceRite, noticed the shelves at the supermarket emptying out around Thanksgiving. With few other local shopping options, she stopped by a Dollar General to grab diapers, coffee and creamer last month.
In Pigtown and surrounding areas, there are a couple dozen corner stores and convenience stores and one public market but the nearest supermarket, a Food Depot at the Westside Shopping Center, is more than a mile away. Some neighborhood residents said they preferred the produce and lower prices at the PriceRite.
“I feel betrayed. … I feel wronged,” Williams said, adding, “We don’t have anything downtown, it’s like there’s nothing for us. We need that [store].”
Williams said she drives to Harris Teeter and other supermarkets for produce, but PriceRite was a reliable local store where she could pick up staples, such as Similac formula for her babies, at a lower price.
“Now we don’t have PriceRite, it just goes to show we have no control of what comes, what goes, what stays, what can be better. … We’re here. We’re here just dealing with it,” she said.
Though the food retail environment is largely shaped by forces outside of an individual’s control, a group of neighborhood leaders are hoping they can help influence what goes into the space that PriceRite used to occupy.
“I don’t believe we’re going to get another grocery store unless organizations like ours really take the lead and push it through,” said Kim Lane, executive director of Pigtown Main Street, which is working with Citizens of Pigtown and Southwest Partnership on the effort.
The groups want to see the owners of Mount Clare Junction fill the now-empty PriceRite building with a tenant that will serve the community. They oppose the property owners’ attempt to expand the allowed uses of the shopping strip to include more medical enterprises. Already, a plasma donation center operates there.
Citizens of Pigtown has attempted to meet with the property owners multiple times in recent weeks and “they’ve blown us off,” said Diante Edwards, president of the neighborhood association. Earlier this month, the organization voted to send a letter to the city opposing a proposed amendment to a city-approved plan that would allow the plasma donation center to continue operating at Mount Clare Junction.
Carlyle Development Group, which purchased the Mount Clare Junction shopping center in 2020, did not respond to requests for comment from The Baltimore Banner.
In November, the company’s president, Abdi Mahamedi, told the Baltimore Business Journal, which first reported news of PriceRite’s closure, that he hopes to keep a grocery store at the location, while noting that non-grocers have expressed interest.
Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-governmental agency, is working with the owner of the shopping strip to “provide incentives to attract a new retailer/grocer to this location,” wrote Susan Yum, the organization’s managing director of marketing and external relations, in an email. A new grocery store could be eligible for a variety of assistance programs and tax breaks from the city and state, including a grocery store tax credit if the city determines the area is now a food desert, according to Yum.
Wakefern Food Corp., which operates PriceRite Marketplaces, did not respond to a request for comment. However, security guard Jamiu Pedro, who was employed by the company for 10 years, said the Pigtown location closed because it was losing money from theft. Pedro guarded the front doors of the store after it closed, ushering hopeful customers away.
Every store experiences theft, or “shrinkage” as it’s called in the industry, said Palmer, of the Center for a Livable Future. That’s why local store owners have told researchers they bear additional costs when operating in low-income neighborhoods, she said.
Beyond security, food retailers consider other factors when deciding where to operate, Palmer said, including tax rates, public transportation options, density of the population and average income.
Despite food’s critical role in survival and well-being, grocery stores aren’t run with equity or the greatest good in mind. “Profitability is the bottom line,” Palmer said.
While supermarkets can be a way to combat food insecurity, “it’s not a perfect solution,” she said. “It’s a solution that largely relies on the private sector to intervene, and that’s tough.”
There are many other strategies that should be part of the bigger picture, such as ensuring people are signed up for federal nutrition programs, expanding online shopping for food assistance programs, and supporting urban farms and farmers markets, Palmer said.
Neighborhood of ‘haves and have nots’
Every Thursday, a line forms outside the red doors of Old Major, a corner bar in Pigtown, for a food giveaway that offers fresh produce, eggs, milk, meat and snacks to anyone in need.
Since PriceRite closed, people have been showing up in larger numbers and earlier, even an hour or two in advance to secure a place in line, said the bar’s owner, Candice Bruno, who partners with Food Rescue Baltimore and 4MyCiTy to host the giveaway.
PriceRite “may not have been perfect, but it … did meet the needs of many people in the community,” she said. “We just need to not forget that these businesses need our support so they can continue to exist. It’s a huge void and it’s pretty tragic for the community.”
Bruno said she is exploring options to expand in order to meet increased demand in the neighborhood. The shuttering of the supermarket had coincided with the closure of a community garden — which was priced out by a new landlord — that used to provide a portion of its fresh produce to people in need.
In many ways, Pigtown does not resemble food deserts in Baltimore, many of which are marked by blocks of vacant buildings and limited access to important services. Pigtown has a bustling retail corridor and is flanked by popular attractions, such as M&T Bank Stadium, Camden Yards and the new Topgolf complex.
For some, it can be easy to forget there are many neighbors who are struggling, Bruno said. “Together, we need to support each other and find common ground.”
“Pigtown, while it is up-and-coming and heading in a positive direction, it still is a neighborhood of haves and have-nots,” she said.
Freelance journalist Julia Reihs contributed to this article.