Following is an article by Vanessa Barrington, about the collaboration between Baltimore’s Department of Planning, Office of Sustainability, and Health Department. These groups show how an active, involved city government and a willingness to try new ideas can change the urban food landscape for the better.
“Baltimore’s Planning Department has a new mindset..a ‘place-based’ model. ‘In the past, growth was seen as the only way to improve the city, but Baltimore is starting to look at ways to make neighborhoods stronger, healthier, and more vibrant places at the low density that they’re at now.
INTERCROPPING FARMS WITHIN THE URBAN LANDSCAPE
Thanks to Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability, however, the city is actively encouraging the creation of small entrepreneurial farms on vacant lots to bring more healthy fresh food to city residents.
In 2010, planning officials met with urban farmers to find out what they would need to grow food in the city. Planners mapped out 20 publicly owned parcels (ranging from one to 12 acres) that met the farmers’ criteria. City officials then encouraged experienced commercial and nonprofit groups to submit a business plan. Of the 10 initial responses, four commercial farms – including Five Seeds Farm and Seed and Cycle – and one nonprofit, Real Food Farm, were qualified to start farming.
The parcels will be leased to the would-be farmers for a mere $100 a year, and the city will make start-up capital available for those who need it. Baltimore is also rewriting its entire zoning code, one major goal of which is to facilitate farming within city limits. In addition to making its citizens healthier…the city hopes to ‘transform vacant lots, increase environmental awareness among its citizens, create green jobs, and raise its profile as a leader.’
Urban farming is a useful way to make more people aware of where their fruit and vegetables comes from, but it can only provide so much food. That’s where Baltimore’s Virtual Supermarket program – a creative public-private partnership that utilizes the city’s libraries to bring fresh groceries to remote neighborhoods — enters the picture.
The original idea was to launch the program in churches in underserved areas. But city officials quickly found that most people didn’t feel comfortable going into unfamiliar churches. Not to be deterred, and recognizing a good idea, the city began looking at other easily accessible neighborhood spaces, and eventually settled on public libraries.
Working with The Center for a Livable Future at nearby Johns Hopkins University, the health department conducted a mapping project to target neighborhoods with no access to fresh food, low vehicle ownership, low income, and high mortality rates from diet-related diseases. They found that as much as 18 percent of Baltimore qualifies as a food desert, using these criteria. (This data is the basis of the city’s first official ‘food desert map’, which will be released in January 2012).
Partnering with Santoni’s, a local, family-owned grocery chain, the city launched Virtual Supermarket in March 2010 in two public libraries. Users place orders from the city’s free-to-use library computers, and Santoni’s staff members deliver the food. Customers can pay with EBT cards, cash, or credit/debit cards.
Today the program includes three libraries and one school, and its success has enabled the city to hire a full-time community organizer to recruit potential customers at senior centers and public housing complexes. To date, 150 different customers have made 700 orders.
Although the city prohibits tobacco, it doesn’t regulate what types of foods people can buy. Nonetheless, 60 percent of the Virtual Supermarket customers polled reported that their diets have improved. Most importantly, according to Fox, the program keeps Baltimore residents from having to travel an hour by bus to the nearest store, or pay to take one of the numerous unofficial cabs that line up outside the city’s grocery stores. She says she sees it as a “health equity program,” adding, “why should someone have to pay $15 to get their groceries home in a cab when someone in a wealthier neighborhood who owns a car would pay 25 cents?”
What’s next for Baltimore? For one, the city is upping its focus on cooking. They’ll soon be staging cooking demonstrations at farmers markets and other locations, and launching a program to get citizens talking to their neighbors about nutrition and cooking.
Last March, Baltimore also became one of the first cities in America to hire a full time Food Policy Director. Holly Freishtat works out of the Office of Sustainability in the Department of Planning…embedding healthy food policy into the planning department..After seeing some city residents endure an ongoing ordeal simply to get fresh food on their tables, she says, “Where you live affects your whole being.”
We CAN Collaborate