As a newcomer to Baltimore, I was surprised at the lack of green spaces and grocery stores in my neighborhood - and throughout the city. I was born and raised in Austin, Texas, where lakes and rolling green hills are as abundant as the diverse farmers' markets, local farm shares and grocery stores where residents can purchase their food at reasonable prices.
Sure, Baltimore has a handful of successful farmers' markets, and there is a small movement in the direction of community-supported agriculture. However, while Baltimore is focused on population growth and economic development, in many neighborhoods residents struggle with relatively few affordable, healthy choices when it comes to buying food.
But unlike some of the seemingly intractable problems facing Baltimore - such as a high crime rate and an inadequate school system - this is something that would be fairly simple to change, and would have immediate, widespread benefits. City neighborhoods can and should take action to increase the number of healthy food choices available to us.
For a "locavore" like me, Baltimore can be a frustrating place to live and eat. I have had to work hard to find local, sustainably grown, affordable and healthy food choices in my neighborhood of Patterson Park. What I've discovered are a few high-price grocery stores, many high-price, low-quality corner stores, and one farmers' market in nearby Highlandtown.
But why should anyone care? Why is local, sustainably grown produce better and healthier than what we buy in a corner store or chain grocery store?
First, buying local means putting money back into the local economy, which supports area farmers and boosts economic development and growth - something that Baltimore is aching for. Second, buying local means you are, more often than not, supporting sustainable agriculture, which is safer and sounder for improving and maintaining the environment, as well as human health.
Many fruits and vegetables may be shipped thousands of miles, meaning a lot of ozone-depleting fuel was used to move them here. That same produce may have been contaminated with harsh chemicals and pesticides, which are not only dangerous for our freshwater aquifers and the environment but also very threatening to human health.
Meat lovers should be aware that large animal-producing farms are now the main source of the chicken, beef, pork and even fish available to Americans. Yet big is not always better. These animal factories cause large-scale environmental degradation, as we've seen with the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore. Factory farming is a leading cause of ozone depletion, as well as community collapse (because small farmers no longer can compete against the big farm companies and because communities can't stand the awful smell of the factories).
Large, overcrowded farms cause stress to the animals living in unsanitary quarters, often resulting in less-tasty meat. In addition, these large facilities threaten human health by creating large open lagoons filled with animal waste and kill by-products that can run off into our streams and neighborhoods.
Still not convinced? Well, another strong reason to buy local is that in learning to be flexible with buying the foods that are in season in your area, you may also save a buck or two - which is something everyone is interested in. The days of fast-food restaurants and doughnut shops vastly outnumbering affordable grocery stores must pass, if we are to have a chance at fighting the obesity epidemic sweeping our nation and our city.
Fortunately, there is great potential for improving access to sustainable, healthier and safer foods and food systems in all Baltimore neighborhoods, but the effort will require local community mobilization, organization and cooperation.
To address two local but widespread problems with one solution: Many abandoned row homes in Baltimore are used for drug deals, prostitution rings and criminal hideouts. Some of these dilapidated buildings could be sold to enterprising individuals, local nonprofits and community development groups, demolished or restored. They could then be used to create revived, safe, community spaces that could be used to hold community events such as farmers' markets or other community-supported agricultural venues, nutrition and health education fairs and community or roof gardens, as I have seen done with great success in East Baltimore.
In addition, it would be very advantageous for neighborhood organizations and businesses to advocate for at least one more supermarket in each neighborhood that could be primarily stocked with locally grown produce and fair-trade items, allowing for increased sustainable community access to fresh, safe and affordable products.
And why couldn't parents, teachers and students create a campaign for school-facilitated gardens, incorporating an environmentally sustainable and community-based initiative into current nutrition and healthy-living education courses? Despite a few local initiatives doing great community work like this, there is much work left to be done.
Through partnerships such as these, Patterson Park and neighborhoods throughout the city could launch a campaign to teach residents of all ages the importance and value of locally sustainable healthy food systems - and, not incidentally, give them access to better-tasting and healthier food.
Sarah Henly-Shepard is a master's degree candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun