Making Food Fair

June 22nd, 2016

“You are what you eat,” or so goes the old adage. But what if what you eat is determined not by choices that you make but by choices made for you? For many people living in Southwest Baltimore, what you eat is determined not by palate or preference, by a whole host of other factors. These factors include proximity to a grocery store, the amount of money that you have to spend on groceries, your ability to access a car to get to the store and back again, free time to spend preparing and cooking meals, and even really basic things like having a fridge in which to store groceries, a stove on which to cook them, or money to pay the gas bill to keep those appliances running.

Five years ago, I moved to Pigtown and one of the characteristics that I quickly learned about my newly adopted neighborhood was that healthy food was a scarcity. At that time there was no grocery store for over a mile. Pigtown now has a Price Rite supermarket, making access to fresh, healthy, foods much easier. Still, the years of going without a supermarket has taken a toll on the health of residents, who grew accustomed to purchasing unhealthy packaged foods at the more convenient corner stores. To complete my weekly shopping trip, I had to get in my car and drive the mile and a half down Washington Boulevard to the grocery store. My neighbors without cars were not so lucky – having to take several buses or settle for higher-cost, lower-quality foods available in our local corner stores and dollar store. As a result, residents of West Baltimore are three times more likely to be affected by a diet-related disease like diabetes or hypertension than residents in other areas of the state.

As I got to know my new neighborhood, I soon became aware of Paul’s Place and the good work they were doing to provide food to people in crisis. I also became connected with Pigtown Food for Thought, a collection of neighbors meeting monthly to talk about Food Justice, a term that I came to learn meant equal access to healthy, affordable food options for all regardless of things like race, class, or location. Five years later, I find myself having just completed a fellowship with the Open Society Institute to create programs that help to address equal access to food in Pigtown, and joining the team at Paul’s Place to support two programs that do just that: the Pigtown Community Farmers’ Market and Kids in the Kitchen.

The Pigtown Community Farmers’ Market came about as a collaboration between Pigtown Food for Thought and Paul’s Place, both organizations believing that a community driven farmers’ market could provide both food access and a means to build a stronger, healthier community. The market, now an official program of Paul’s Place, is in its second season and expects to see over 300 Pigtown residents each week walk through the vendor tents which sell fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, cheese, coffee, prepared foods, and more, all at affordable prices. The market doubles federal nutrition benefits like SNAP and WIC (SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, and WIC is the federal program that assists low-income Women, Infants, and Children) up to $5 each week. Through partnerships with Baltimore City Recreation & Parks, Pigtown Main Street, The Family League, Towson University, and MECU, we are also able to offer weekly entertainment, free cooking demonstrations, consultations with public health nurses, free summer meals for youth under 18, and a senior program in which the first 50 senior-citizens to attend are given $2 to spend at the market.

Kids in the Kitchen – piloted 18 months ago at Paul’s Place and now also an official program – teaches children in the after school program how to prepare and cook healthy meals that they bring home to share with their families. This summer, we will be offering cooking classes to parents of children who have participated in the program.

Paul’s Place has long been known as a place to come in a moment of crisis, to get a hot meal or a box of food for the family during a tough time, but it’s the newer services – such as those that help locate stable, affordable housing or jobs that create financial independence – that work to move people out of a moment of crisis into long-term self-sufficiency. Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights names access to healthy, affordable food is a human right, and we believe that, by creating greater access via the farmers’ market and cooking education, we can create positive change for our neighborhood, our city, and ourselves for the long haul.

By Charlotte Keniston, Community Food Programs Coordinator