Baltimore’s Arabbers: Simple Solutions to Public Problems?

June 30, 2015
Lindsey Haynes-Maslow
Former contributor

Recently I was on conference call with a group of community-based food leaders. I asked them for a wish list—a list of any resource imaginable that could help them create a more equitable food system in their community. I told them: “the sky is the limit—just tell me what you need.” The usual suspects were rattled off…more time, money, staff…and then a quiet voice said, “I wish Baltimore would bring back the horses.”

Huh? I quickly looked at my Union of Concerned Scientists’ colleagues—I mouthed the word “horse?” —and they all nodded “yes”. That voice, now becoming more confident, went on: “Yes, I would like to see the arabbers on the streets again.” I had no idea what an arabber was and was too embarrassed to ask. Fortunately, Clayton Williams, farm manager of Strength to Love II, a job training program to support residents returning from incarceration, saved me and asked, “Do you all know what I’m talking about?—Baltimore used to have arabbers traveling through neighborhoods with horses and carts selling fresh produce. They traveled right to the neighborhood—right into the heart of the community.”

Baltimore Arabber

Arabber on 36th Street in Baltimore. (Photo by Jason Hoffman)

Following the Civil War, horse-cart vending was one of a only few jobs available to African American entrepreneurs. Arabbers sold produce on colorful horse-drawn carts—and Baltimore’s arabbers are the last horse-cart vendors in the United States. However, over the past several years city health officials and animal control have shut down many operations due to sanitary concerns and poor living conditions for the horses.  While sanitation and animal welfare are legitimate concerns, cities should try and work with arabbers more closely to address these issues.

I followed-up with Clayton to learn more about Baltimore’s arabbers. I asked him to tell me about his experiences with them and he said: “When I was a kid, my siblings and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. We would sit on her front porch and watch the arabbers coming down the street handing out peaches, cherries, and watermelons. It was just like the ice cream man—you were always happy to see him. They were part of the community—you would see the different horses and carts. Each horse had their own style.” More importantly, Clayton said, “They got food right into the neighborhood. Right there!”

Baltimore’s arabbers were a simple solution to a public problem: a broken food system. Clayton’s grandmother didn’t drive, and she cared for Clayton and his two siblings after school. If she wanted to purchase food for their family, they would have to walk to the grocery store. Clayton remembers carrying grocery bags with his siblings all the way home—“It was pretty inconvenient.” So when the arabbers came through the neighborhood calling out the different types of produce they had for sale, Clayton said his grandmother would always buy from them. “The arabbers were a morale booster. Their carts were colorful and they made people feel good.”

A new study released this month by the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that 1 in 4 Baltimore residents lack access to healthy food. The study also found that African Americans and children are disproportionally affected by this lack of access. In terms of finding solutions to this problem, Clayton says: “Bringing Baltimore’s arabbers back would get fresh produce right into the community—it’s good for the entrepreneur, it’s good for the people. It may sound small and old-fashioned, but if they could find a way to get the horses back it would be a beautiful solution.”

Solutions to public problems don’t always have to be complex. Local governments, non-profit organizations, and entrepreneurs across the country are working to address food access in lower-income communities. New York City’s Green Carts program consists of mobile food carts that offer fresh produce in neighborhoods with limited food access. Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture operates farm-stands-on-wheels that travel directly to underserved communities in the Washington, DC area selling local, sustainably produced food to residents. Breaking Bread Cafe in North Minneapolis is a restaurant serving healthy, flavorful food while trying to improve the health of its community through food and economic development opportunities. 

Small-scale, community-inspired solutions can serve as the building blocks to creating a more equitable food system.