We went shopping in a food desert where there is little access to healthy food. Here’s what we found.

Nearly one in four Baltimore residents live in a food desert, and Black residents are disproportionately affected.

Published on: November 17, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 17, 2022 2:59 PM EST

Joseph Snowden’s two-story rowhome in Baltimore’s Midtown-Edmondson neighborhood is more than a mile away from the nearest food market, where he goes to restock his fridge and pantry.

The 65-year-old lifelong resident of West Baltimore used to be able to drive to Westside Shopping Center, but as the cost of living rose, he struggled to keep up with car payments. Now, he has to rely on others to give him rides or pick up grocery items at the market for him.

The corner stores near his home aren’t an option. Mostly what they carry is “something old,” he said with a laugh. “Nothing fresh.”

I met Snowden while walking around West Baltimore with fellow Banner journalist Krishna Sharma. We wanted to hear from others what it’s like to live and shop in a food desert as part of reporting we were doing on grocery store prices.

Like Snowden, nearly one in four Baltimore residents live in areas with limited access to healthy and affordable food, also known as food deserts or “Healthy Food Priority Areas,” according to a 2018 report from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future. Baltimore’s healthy food priority areas are spread out in a patchwork pattern across the city and disproportionately affect Black residents. About 32% of Black Baltimoreans live in one, compared to 11% of Hispanic residents and 9% of white residents, according to the report.

Snowden’s neighborhood didn’t always used to be that way.

When his parents moved to the rowhome in the 800 block of North Payson Street in 1946, the area looked very different, Snowden said. They were the first Black family to live in the neighborhood. Growing up, Snowden remembers a well-stocked Super Pride Market — at one point one of the largest independent supermarket chains in Baltimore — just around the corner. Over time, white families left, he said, and the neighborhood changed in other ways.

Like in many other parts of Baltimore, resulting population decline, disinvestment and marginalization has made the community one where nearly 50% of residents live under the poverty line and vacant buildings populate entire blocks.

Krishna and I consulted a Maryland food system map created by the Center for a Livable Future to pinpoint a healthy food priority area, defined as a place that has low healthy food availability, where the median household income is at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, more than 30% of households don’t have access to vehicles and the distance to a supermarket is more than a quarter of a mile.

Equipped with our phones, reporters notebooks and a grocery list with some basic items, we traveled to the corner of Brice and Lanvale streets and began to walk, looking for the nearest corner store.

We stopped a couple of blocks away at a car wash service to talk to McKinley Woodard, who was having a beer with a friend. Woodard said he drives out to Baltimore County to shop for food because of the lack of grocery options near him.

“Once you take the food, bank, library. [There are] too many liquor stores on the corner,” Woodard said.

Woodard’s observation tracks with what research has shown: Areas with little access to healthy and affordable food often also lack access to other important services such as banks, health care, transportation infrastructure, parks and other recreational spaces. Residents of food deserts are more likely to have chronic health conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Krishna and I walked for nearly half a mile through the neighborhood, searching for a food mart. We passed three shuttered corner stores, which looked like they had been closed for a long time, before finding Lee’s Mini Market at the corner of North Fulton and Edmondson avenues.

After walking up a short flight of stairs and being buzzed in through the front door, we were greeted by the owners, who were known to their customers as “ma” and “Mr. Lee.”

Lee’s Mini Market has been an establishment in the Harlem Park neighborhood for nearly three decades. The corner store was packed nearly floor to ceiling with essentials. Jewel-toned dish soap sat next to cans of sweet corn. Bags of cat food were tucked neatly under bins of potatoes and onions.

I was able to find almost everything I needed on my shopping list at the corner store, including perishable items such as milk, eggs and butter.

But the market had its limitations. The only fresh fruit I saw in the store was bananas near the cash register, sold for 50 cents each. Other than potatoes and onions, the only vegetables I saw were bags of frozen corn and a head of lettuce.

The market also lacked fresh meat. I managed to pick up a bag of frozen chicken breasts and a package of hot dogs. Overall, though, the store was well stocked and I didn’t see anything being sold past its expiration date.

Prices of many items at the corner store were higher than my local supermarket, the Giant Food in Waverly, which wasn’t surprising. This was a small, family-owned business without the benefit of economies of scale. It’s also common for groceries to cost more in communities that have higher rates of poverty.

Snowden, the neighborhood resident who couldn’t keep up with his car payments, said he’s keenly felt the impact of inflation and and rising prices at his supermarket.

His disability check doesn’t go as far, Snowden said, and he has had to switch to more generic grocery brands.

“You used to have a nest to save,” he said. “You can’t even save no more.”

There are a number of community organizations that are tackling the issue of healthy food access in Baltimore. One is the Black Yield Institute, based in another food desert in Cherry Hill, about five miles south of Midtown-Edmondson.

Co-founder Eric Jackson said the Black Yield Institute uses a multi-pronged approach that incorporates educating individuals, developing a food co-op scheduled to open in 2024 and distributing food that they produce or procure from other Black-owned and local sources.

During a recent talk hosted by the United Way of Central Maryland about healthy food access, Jackson said there are many structural issues that contribute to the problem.

Jackson called for less reliance on supermarkets as a food source, empowering more people to grow their own food and expanding the public’s concept of food to include items that can be foraged.

“Unfortunately, what it comes down to is people are passing prematurely and living with disease ... the presence of those oppressive systems, the absence of actual food and knowledge base and, I would say, ultimately, limited power impacts food insecurity in the areas where we are,” Jackson said.

Data visualizations by Emma Patti Harris