Two stores try to close the health gap in Baltimore

Apples & Oranges, Food Depot try to get healthier choices in front of their customers

  • Michele Speaks-March and her husband, Erich March, opened Apples & Oranges grocery store this year in East Baltimore.
Michele Speaks-March and her husband, Erich March, opened… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
June 17, 2013|Dan Rodricks

The pause is familiar to anyone who has been in a supermarket: The grocery checkout suddenly stops as a customer, perhaps quietly embarrassed, decides which items can be purchased and which will have to wait.

One day in Apples & Oranges, the grocery store she and her husband, Erich March, opened this year in East Baltimore, Michele Speaks-March noticed that a young woman had more items in her shopping cart than she could afford. The checkout had stopped. Speaks-March walked over and asked the woman, who had two children with her, if she needed help.

"This stuff is too high," the woman complained about the prices. "I don't get food stamps for two days and need to feed my kids, and this is just too high."

At the risk of crossing the line with a customer — from store owner to dietary consultant — Speaks-March decided to tell the young woman that her shopping practices needed refining.

"You've got all the wrong stuff in here," she said, noting frozen chicken nuggets, microwaveable Hot Pockets and a frozen pizza. "It's OK to buy this stuff sometimes. But they should be a treat, not the center of your diet."

Speaks-March picked up a basket and asked the young woman to walk with her to the poultry section of the store. Speaks-March selected two packages, each containing four chicken drumsticks (total cost: $4).

"You're going to sprinkle a little seasoning on these and put them in your oven," she told the customer, who frowned. "Well, you were going to put that pizza in the oven, weren't you?"

The customer went along with the plan for dinner.

"Then," Speaks-March said, "I went over and got her a baked potato and I said, 'You're going to put a little oil on this potato and you're going to stick it in the microwave, cut it open, with a little bit of salt and pepper, maybe a little margarine. You're going to steam this broccoli, and those babies are going to have a full, balanced meal, and they won't be hungry in an hour after they eat — all for just $10.'"

The woman was so appreciative of the lesson in economical, healthy shopping, she embraced her teacher on the spot. "It was a real hug," said Speaks-March. "It was one of those days I was really, really tired, and I called Erich with tears in eyes, and [said], 'OK, that's what this is all about.' "

The Marches, from a Baltimore family prominent in the funeral business, opened Apples & Oranges Fresh Market a few months ago, determined to bring healthier offerings to the East North Avenue area, part of the city with few grocery options.

It's not just a store. It's a mission. And the mission goes beyond providing access to healthier food.

The Marches have staged a Zumba dance fitness class on the parking lot. They plan to have cooking classes. They've offered screenings for diabetes and hypertension, two common ailments that contribute to the premature deaths of many Baltimoreans. Erich March has had an insider's view of that through the March Funeral Home. It's one of the prime reasons he and his wife created Apples & Oranges.

Across town, the Food Depot supermarket on Frederick Avenue just launched an "eat right, live well" campaign, implementing recommendations from health researchers and hiring Sheryl Hoehner, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, to steer customers to good food and healthy diets.

Benjy Green, whose family has been in the food business for most of a century, operates two Food Depots in the city. He said he wanted to be more active in addressing the health of customers, many of whom are poor, use food stamps and have limited choices in shopping.

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health says Southwest Baltimore, the area served by the Food Depot, has "a startlingly high rate of diet-related diseases and mortality."

Aware of this, Green offered his store as a laboratory three years ago to Anne Palmer, director of the center's food and nutrition program.

"We're running a business," Green said, "but we're concerned about the health of our neighbors. I said to Hopkins, 'I have a mission and you have a research mission. What can we do to bring the two together?' "

Researchers undertook a study to determine how changes in the supermarket's environment — from its layout to the labeling of items on the shelves — might encourage low-income shoppers to shop in a more healthful way. Like the setup at Apples & Oranges, the idea is to draw attention to low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt foods, and to push healthier choices with sales and promotions.

"We haven't eliminated every fried potato chip from the store," Green said, "but we increased the variety in the store significantly, in each department."

You have to applaud these efforts to close the wellness gaps in our community.

Here's to the Marches and to the Greens — good luck with this, and good health.

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