A-rabbers As Solution To 'Food Deserts'

November 15, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

Progressive, health-conscious people up in Michigan launched an effort to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to Detroit's "food deserts" - large sections of town with plenty of liquor stores and fast-food places but few or no supermarkets or farmers' markets. A small fleet of vendor-style trucks now bring produce to people who have neither well-stocked food stores in their neighborhoods nor cars for schlepping groceries from distant markets.

A $75,000 loan from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority got the Food Movers program moving in August.

People in inner-city Detroit, many of whom have high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, are now connected with Michigan farmers. The Food Movers trucks are stocked with local produce.

We can do the same thing in Baltimore, without the trucks. We still have - though just barely - the a-rabs and their ponies. And we have opportunity.

A new, smart and expansive business plan for the a-rabs would not only preserve a Baltimore tradition but also make city residents healthier and expand the local market for Maryland farmers.

The a-rabs could, for most of the year, sell throughout the week the fruits and vegetables we usually only see on the weekends at the city's farmers' markets. Some farmers, particularly those who sell eggs and dairy, could even establish route-customers and hire a-rabbers to make deliveries. There are all kinds of things that could be done to make the a-rabs a link between Maryland farms and Baltimore kitchens.

This was No. 10 in my list of steps, published Thursday, to preserve the a-rabs in a sustainable way. But it could easily have been No. 1.

For one thing, some parts of Baltimore have food deserts just like Detroit's. A recent community survey in southwest Baltimore by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for a Livable Future found the following in the community's 41 stores: 75 percent had no fruits or vegetables for sale; 29 percent sold no milk; 47 percent sold whole or 2 percent milk; 75 percent sold white bread or none at all.

It's likely worse in other parts of town.

There's no question of a gaping hole in the food supply for city residents.

That means, with the right business model, there's an opportunity here for men, women and ponies.

I'm not talking about keeping the a-rabs around for nostalgia.

If we put someone with business acumen and a skill for marketing in charge of reorganizing the a-rab fleet, give them some start-up funds and some support, we could see an a-rab renaissance that contributes to the health of citizens, expands the amenities of city life and makes the tourists smile.

I received all sorts of supportive comments from readers after Thursday's column. They see what I see: a way to keep a Baltimore tradition in place while expanding a sector of the local economy.

But this old issue - the fading a-rabs and the city's dull-headed attitude toward them - needs some fresh thinking and new blood.

Maybe we need to get Tony Geraci involved. He's the innovative food and nutrition specialist in the process of changing the city schools' lunch program into one of the healthiest and greenest in the country. He's started Meatless Mondays, brought locally grown foods back into the lunchrooms, opened a 33-acre teaching farm on city land off Route 40 is working to establish a garden at every school in the system. That's the kind of thinker the a-rab project needs.

Actually, this is a project for anyone who (a) cares about Baltimore traditions, (b) wants to see fresh produce sold from colorful pony-drawn carts all over the city, (c) wants to ensure that a-rab ponies are treated humanely and stabled in healthy environments and/or (d) likes to visit Baltimore and take pictures of a-rab ponies in colorful tack.

I've got one volunteer already - Campaign Consultation Inc.'s Linda Brown Rivelis. She's a professional organizer, consultant and fundraiser with a load of civic spirit. She's offered her company's talent and resources to get something started again on the a-rab front. Contact her at Success@CampaignConsultation .com.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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