Baltimore's food czar

Our view: To boost health, city must improve supply and demand for fruits and vegetables

May 11, 2010

In explaining the unhealthy eating habits that have fostered widespread obesity and other health problems in the inner city, Baltimore faces a chicken-and-egg (or, perhaps more accurately, Chicken McNugget-and-Egg McMuffin) issue: Do people not choose healthy foods because they are unavailable, or are healthy foods unavailable because people choose unhealthy ones? It's probably some of both. Supermarkets followed affluent residents to the suburbs, and the corner markets and convenience stores that remain rarely stock fresh fruits and vegetables. But the problem isn't just one of supply; years of bad eating habits will take more than an airlift of locally grown carrots to overcome.

That's why the appointment of city's first "food czar," Holly Freishtat, is so important. The newly created position, one of the first of its kind in a major U.S. city, is funded by grants from nonprofits and is charged with implementing recommendations of the Baltimore City Food Policy Task Force. Among the ideas for getting more fresh produce in city residents' hands is the expansion of a "virtual supermarket" program that allows people to order groceries online at a local library, new zoning to allow more urban gardens, expanded access to farmers markets and a push for healthier food in corner stores and on street vendors' carts.

The twofold difficulty city officials face is exemplified by the virtual supermarket program. The Health Department, which runs the program at pilot sites in East and West Baltimore, has been fairly successful so far in getting people to try the service, and the anecdotal response is that it makes grocery shopping much more convenient for people who don't own cars and would otherwise have to walk long distances or take multiple buses to get to a grocery store. But the service doesn't restrict participants to healthy choices alone, and it remains to be seen whether simply having access to fresh produce will be enough to overcome the pull of junk food. The East Baltimore site at the Orleans Street library is, after all, across the street from a Burger King.

But one of the ideas Ms. Freishtat says she's most excited about is an effort to change the food culture among city residents. Modeling the program after one in Washington state, where she worked before moving to Baltimore a few months ago, Ms. Freishtat is planning to enlist the help of elementary school students in devising campaigns for healthy eating that would then appear as advertisements on buses that run through the students' neighborhoods. That would help take the much-lauded efforts of the city school system to encourage healthy eating and bring them beyond the schoolhouse walls to the students' parents and grandparents.

She and others working on the effort say they hope that more exposure to healthier foods will gradually lead to better diets. Turning Baltimore's bumper crop of vacant lots into community gardens — and perhaps into training and employment opportunities for urban farmers — could make fresh vegetables as routine a part of the urban scene as fast food joints, and that should, at least slowly, make people more willing to try new and healthier foods. So would making community-supported agriculture more than a niche product for hard-core locavores or expanding the locations and hours of farmers markets so they are more than a weekend leisure activity for foodies.

Ms. Freishtat has her work cut out for her. The logistical and cultural hurdles this effort faces are substantial, but so too are the potential rewards in improved health, education and economic development.

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