Finding Water in a Desert: Finding Solutions to Fix Unhealthy Food Environments in Black Communities in Baltimore City
Black people should own the patent on fried chicken and anything else considered soul food. It’s one of the many contributions of African Americans to the rest of the world. Soul food is more than a staple dish; it’s a spiritual experience with our ancestors. In Baltimore, the smell of chicken frying is thick in the air. It's everywhere. But it doesn’t quite smell like grandma’s kitchen. This smell is different, still hypnotizingly good, but grimy – like the grease was dirty. The smells come from East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Indian owned carry-outs that line the streets of the hood. These carry-outs kept enough fried chicken to feed everyone in the city 5 wings and fries every day of my entire life and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of slowing down. It’s as if they met the plug for the chicken wing cartel, took him out, and took over the whole operation. They push fried chicken through the hood just like dope. Every corner in the city is accounted for and the fiends line up faithfully around lunch and dinner time every day. Ironically enough, the effects of the fried chicken epidemic are as crippling as heroin to our communities. Do you know what kills more black people than drug overdose and drug trade related violence? Heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke, also known as obesity related diseases, are the number one killers in our communities.
Everybody has their favorite carry out. We argue about whether the East or the West side has the best chicken boxes. Baltimore in general may be known for crab cakes, but black Baltimore is known for chicken boxes- four wings and fries, salt, pepper, ketchup and hot sauce all over everything. It was enough to give you permanent acid re-flux at age 12. We ate it two, three, four times a week if we could. In all honesty, it was just another example of people moving into black communities, appropriating the culture, and OVER-selling it back to us with no regard to the effect it might have for generations to come.
I went to corner carryout to get three fried chicken wings, two pancakes, and some grits with salt, pepper, and extra butter. I had no intention of sharing any of it. They didn’t have any cheddar cheese for my grits, so I walked half way up the block to the Family Food Market, the one right next door to the two small liquor stores where the unc’s hang out. An unc is an older guy from the neighborhood who hangs on the block all day is usually drunk or high off drugs. They smoke fugs and drink cans of steel and pints of Salignac. Sometimes they try to kick knowledge to the younger guys on the block, but they lack respect because they are broke and never did anything with their lives. I really didn’t understand the purpose of having two small liquor stores right next to each other but when I looked around I realized the rest of the strip wasn’t any different.
Up the block a little further, there are two more carryouts, a Chinese takeout spot, and a convenient store. Across the street there is another liquor store, another carryout, and another convenient store. At the end of the strip there is a Wendy’s. At the other end of the strip there is a gas station that also has a convenient store inside. How can three liquor stores and five carryouts even survive on the same block together? You mean to tell me that this community spends enough money on fried chicken, hot Cheetos, and Hennessy to support all these businesses at the same time?
The Family Food Market wasn’t much bigger than the carry out. There is no way you could fit all the nutritional needs of a community in a store that size, and even still the store was stocked with chips, cakes, pies, box foods, and microwaveable. Spaghetti-o-s, oodles of Noodles, and pop tarts lined the shelves. There was an extensive catalog of individual sodas, two-liters, Kool-Aid, and juices. There was only one long columned refrigerator cabinet of fresh produce. Only one shelf dedicated to fresh fruit. There were a few more small containers of vegetables that looked as if they hadn't been touched by a single customer in days. As I walked back down the block to pick up my order from the carry out, I realized that I was not only surrounded by enough sodium, cholesterol, and fat to give a whale a heart attack, there wasn’t a supermarket in sight. Nowhere to buy kale, avocados, fresh fish, peppers, tomatoes, or berries.
Growing up, this food environment was normal to me and just about everyone I knew. Nobody seemed to think anything was wrong with it; probably because throughout Baltimore City there are 435 corner stores 300 convenient stores and just 45 supermarkets according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University in 2015.
The zip codes change, but the genetic makeup of food access in black neighborhoods is generally the same. Baltimore like many other urban cities around the country is dominated by food desserts and food swamps. A food dessert is any neighborhood where the distance to a supermarket is greater than ¼ of a mile, the median household income is at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, over 30% of households has no vehicle available, and the average healthy food availability index for food stores are low. A food swamp is an area where unhealthy foods are more available than healthy food.
The effects of healthy food discrimination have aided in the growth of health disparities that affect African American communities. Black neighborhoods like Coldstream and North Govans in Northeast Baltimore produce more cases of stroke, heart disease, type two diabetes, and cancer than adjacent white neighborhoods like Charles village, Guilford and Homeland (Baltimore City Health Department). At the root of the issue is access to healthy food multiplied by the over-saturation of very unhealthy food sources. We watch generations grow old with disease or die young. There is an endless cycle of skinny guys with guts that stick out like they ate a balloon. We have uncles with amputated legs and yellow eyes. There are fathers and grandfathers stuck in wheelchairs because they are disabled by stroke and can’t use the right side of their body. Aunts and grandmas with oxygen tanks that follow them like a shadow. Generations of old ladies who take meds for their “sugar”, and a new generation of overweight millennials who are self-conscious about their body and experimenting with flat tummy teas.
There are some that would argue that food desserts and swamps aren’t the bigger problem. A study by economists at NYU show that even when you put the same families who live in food deserts in a supermarket with healthier options those families still choose bad foods. Even after there is access to healthy foods, health outcomes stay the same. The study suggests that the bigger issue is education and nutritional knowledge. However, we are partly conditioned and educated by the environment we are raised in. If I grow up with cheese curls, huggie juices, hot dogs and pork and beans at every corner of my neighborhood why would I think that it was harmful? Why would we assume the food my community sells to me is killing me slowly? We eat it because that’s what we see most.
Food deserts are still the problem, and the normalization of a deadly food environment has tremendous effects and is even more dangerous. The problem has outgrown the solution. Access is only the first step. Access doesn’t decrease the overwhelmingly excessive amount of unhealthy food options in our neighborhoods. Access doesn’t teach us how to cook the new foods that we are being introduced to. What if that new grocery store in the hood did cooking demos like the lady who teaches you how to make a new kitchen back-splash at Home Depot? What if the city decreased the number of corner store, liquor store, and carry out permits and gave incentives to the stores that offered healthier options? Stores like the Family Food Market feel like fresh produce is a bad investment and who can blame them? People will walk right past that fresh produce for something greasy, salty, and filling like a cheese-steak sub, with everything on it plus extra hots, and a jumbo half and half. If I leave my house with the intention of going to buy a healthy meal my mind is instantly changed by the smell of fish and chicken frying in the air. Access is a very important first step, but it must be paired with initiatives headed by business owners, government, and most importantly the community.
Fortunately, there are solutions. Baltimore is full of proud people who love their city. There is growing community of Baltimoreans committed to not only building businesses but also creating social impact. Non-profit organizations like Brown and Healthy and No Food Deserts work to eradicate health disparity in the city, through education and programming. Restaurants like Land of Kush, Grindhouse Juice Bar, and The Grub Factory are Black owned business that not only serve healthy vegan meals but also educate people about healthy food that still taste good. Michele Obama started the Let’s Move Initiative in 2012 to raise a healthier generation of children and bring awareness to the health disparities created by food deserts and lack of physical activity. Despite rollbacks from the Trump administration, Baltimore City government still considers these initiatives a priority. Mayor Pugh has renamed food deserts in Baltimore “Healthy Food Priority Areas” to change the conversation and make healthy communities in the city a priority. There are several "urban farms" around the city where community members have turned vacant lots into healthy sustainable food sources. I’m excited about the opportunity to create change and I hope this article motivates you to become a part of the conversation and more importantly a part of the solution.
- Anthony Watters
Anthony Watters is a 26-year-old Exercise Physiologist, Strength and Conditioning Coach, and Community Activist. His brand "Drink More Watters" uses exercise, nutrition, performance, rehab, and education to create healthier communities, specifically within Baltimore City.