When Reginald Sample leaves his West Baltimore home to go grocery shopping for his 94-year-old mother, he has two choices: a pricey nearby convenience store or a 25-minute trek through drug-ravaged streets to the Safeway in Pigtown.
"It's a real issue having to leave the community for your basic needs," says Sample, 49, an office manager who lives in Harlem Park. "Your basic needs should be here. You don't mind leaving the neighborhood for extravagant things."
Throughout Baltimore, which has lost about 15 percent of its supermarkets in the past two years, many neighborhoods are underserved by grocers and bus lines. Many of those areas are overserved by high-priced corner stores that offer convenience at a cost often too high for city dwellers' grocery allowances.
Some also fear that losing supermarkets could lead to unhealthy eating habits. And the loss might hurt in another sense: by taking away meeting places where residents see each other and socialize.
The problem is not uncommon in American cities where crime and low-income shoppers sometimes deter businesses - such as grocery stores - from opening outlets in urban neighborhoods. It's also not uncommon that city officials, like those in Baltimore, scramble to come up with solutions.
"We need more grocery stores in this city," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has appointed a city official to help bring grocers back to Baltimore.
Experts say that losing supermarkets makes it harder to attract and retain residents. In an attempt to reverse the trend, city leaders have signed up 12 new grocery stores - including seven in distressed areas - that promised to open between May 2001 and next February.
But O'Malley concedes, "We still have a long way to go."
Today is O'Malley's third day in Las Vegas at the International Council of Shopping Centers spring convention, where he is trying to attract new supermarkets and other large retailers to Baltimore.
There are an estimated 57 grocery stores in Baltimore serving 651,000 residents.
Some city residents are so desperate that they sent a petition to O'Malley this month asking for a grocery to take the place of one that closed in August.
The petition, signed by 67 people in the Belair-Edison community, has scribbled hand-written notes such as "Badly needed for the elderly," "Do not drive. Cannot get to the market," and "Please help us."
With so few supermarkets, many people are forced to shop at drugstores. In fact, Baltimoreans bought far more grocery items at Rite Aid last year than at any supermarket in the city, according to Jeff Metzger, an industry expert and publisher of the Columbia-based Food World newspaper.
Rite Aid had more than 16 percent of the market share of supermarket items, followed by Giant, which had just over 11 percent, Metzger said.
The grocery store problem worsened in October 2000 when Super Pride grocers, the third-largest independent grocer in the city, closed five stores in distressed areas in Baltimore.
"Everybody was caught by surprise," said Kevin Malachi, director of the city's commercial revitalization division and the mayor's appointee to fix the grocery store problem. "We don't know what the reason was."
The area probably smarting the worst from losing its Super Pride is geographically isolated Cherry Hill in South Baltimore. The neighborhood has about 11,000 residents - half of whom live in public housing - and no supermarket.
"A lot of people who don't have transportation have had to find alternative means to buy groceries," Malachi said.
Convenience at a cost
Often, that means going to mom-and-pop stores and paying exorbitant prices for basic needs or buying the cheapest food items they an get.
Sometimes, Sample said, it's the children in the neighborhood who suffer because of it.
"That's why the younger kids are being stuffed with Oodles of Noodles and other not-healthy stuff," Sample said.
Bananas can cost as much as 75 cents each at corner stores, but as little as 33 cents a pound at a supermarket.
And the price of bread is almost as outrageous.
"The price you pay for a loaf of bread at the corner store, you can get two loaves at the supermarket," Sample said of his Harlem Park corner stores.
After a long search and much governmental intervention and incentives, Cherry Hill is slated for a new market this summer.
Even areas considered well served by the city have issues.
Eilee Boylan doesn't have a car and walks a mile to the Safeway in Pigtown twice a week to get food for herself and her cats.
She brings a rolling cart, which she bought 10 years ago, to help get her groceries home. "You have to be crafty," she said. "And if it's raining I don't go."
Sometimes she rides her bike to the store. At times she has seen people walking home and struggling with their bags and pitied them enough to carry their bags on her bike handles all the way to their houses.
Occasionally, she said, she'll see people in wheelchairs headed home on the sidewalk with their grocery bags hanging from their chairs.