From Baltimore Protests to Food: The Importance of Community Voices

, food systems & health analyst | May 1, 2015, 3:07 pm EDT
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Two months ago I was in Baltimore for a conference focusing on healthy food access. Before the opening reception I squeezed in a run. With temperatures well below freezing, I ran down to the Harbor where the water was frozen and the cargo ships were still. There was hardly anyone in sight. I was amazed at the quietness blanketing the city.

For some people in places like East Baltimore, this is what a neighborhood food store looks like. Photo: Nicholas Eckhart/Flickr.

For some people in places like East Baltimore, this is what a neighborhood food store looks like. Photo: Nicholas Eckhart/Flickr.

The Baltimore I saw in February is in stark contrast to the images we’re seeing this week. With Baltimore being the latest American city to succumb to burning buildings, protesters (both peaceful and violent), angry youth, and worried moms, I can only hope that our country begins digging to the root of the problem and asking why?

I tend to ask that question a lot – “why?” – in part because of my education. My academic training in public health and health policy encourages me to think holistically; to think about all the pieces that impact behavior – to ask what part of the puzzle am I missing? My qualitative training has taught me that only by talking with individuals from the community will I begin to truly understand.

While in Baltimore, I learned that the majority of food stores on the East side of town are corner stores – where healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are often unavailable. But even when they are available, these items are 20% more expensive than the nearest supermarket price. However, this is more of a problem in predominately African American neighborhoods, since they are further away from supermarkets than predominately white neighborhoods.

More recently, several of my colleagues and I at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) convened another group of community-based leaders, this time in Louisville, Kentucky. They came from across the country to discuss local programs they are spearheading and policies they are promoting to help increase equitable access to healthy food in their communities. My UCS colleague, Amelia Moore, led a brainstorming session asking the leaders what an equitable food system would look like – what necessary phrases or concepts would describe it. While Amelia wrote their words on a large flip chart, I couldn’t help but notice they could be applied across multiple issues – affordable housing, good jobs, fair treatment by authorities:

“Justice; healthy; inclusive; community-owned; affordable; accessible; fair; enjoyable; community-controlled; cultural; safe; trust.”

The interesting thing about this list of descriptors is that it reveals a systemic understanding of our food system – one that encompasses economic, social, and physical components. Yet, the actual components of our food system (what food we produce, how we produce it, for whom we produce it, and how much it is worth) are defined by a set of policies and practices that are fragmented.

Last fall, fellow runner and colleague Ricardo Salvador described this fragmented system in a Washington Post op-ed: “The food industry is the largest sector of our economy; food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality and the federal budget. Yet we have no food policy — no plan or agreed-upon principles — for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole. That must change.”

Like many others, I came to DC for change. I accepted a job working at UCS to help make an evidence-based case for a food system that promotes health and well-being for all of us. I traveled here to ask the questions “why” and “how” can we improve our food system to better reflect the community’s voice.

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  • Laura Hely

    Part of this problem is national and local grocery chains red lining. In St. Louis, one local chain has stores in the city. I don’t believe that even that chain has any stores in the poorest neighborhoods. I believe that pressure could be placed on these chains to place stores where needed by community education and boycotts. I will not shop at chains without stores in the city and encourage people I know to do the same, but it takes larger community action.to have an impact.

    • Lindsey Haynes-Maslow

      Thank you Laura for the comment. Red lining is an issue prevalent in many cities and towns. Hopefully, the protests across the county are a starting point for us to begin digging deeper to the root of the problem.