March 7, 2018; Grub Street
Access to affordable, healthy food is pivotal in creating healthy communities and long-term positive health outcomes for individuals and families. Unfortunately, that opportunity does not exist for everybody in the United States. According to the USDA, nearly 40 million people live within a food desert, meaning that a substantial portion of the people living in an area do not have access to or live far away from a grocery store. Overwhelmingly the people that live in food deserts are low income people who struggle with multiple layers of access, from transportation, to banking/credit access, to healthcare. What’s more, food access issues impact communities of color disproportionately.
Over the past several years many groups around the country have mobilized and developed a plethora of initiatives geared towards increasing food access. Many of these efforts leverage existing public funds, create jobs, and provide much needed economic development in areas that have historically been overlooked by community and economic development departments. Though progress has been made, many communities still struggle with food access. One such community is Baltimore, which in many ways is emblematic of the intersection of social and economic issues related to food access. While the city of Baltimore in January reframed food deserts as “healthy food priority areas,” the fact remains the city has a monumental food access issue. According to the 2012 study Searching for Markets: The Geography of Inequitable Access to Healthy and Affordable Food in United States, Baltimore ranks second nationally in cities with low supermarket areas by the scale of the problem and its burden on low-income people. Adding to this is that a disproportionate number of African Americans in Baltimore are impacted by food access issues: according to John Hopkins University, 23.5 percent of the population, or 146,077 city residents, live in such areas, and a total of 124,521 of them are African American. Overall, one out of every four people Baltimore residents lives in a food desert, and combined with other systemic barriers, this translates into higher chronic disease rate and, consequently, poor long-term health outcomes.
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One group addressing food access in Baltimore is a surprisingly new player in the grocery store marketplace: the Salvation Army, which recently opened a nonprofit grocery store called DMG Foods standing for “doing the most good,” a name reflecting the organization’s widely recognized tagline. Building on its legacy of helping people since 1865 as well as its retail business model, the store integrates social service delivery with access to fresh fruits and vegetables. While the store is small in comparison to other larger grocery stores, standing at only 7,000 square feet, it was designed with intentionality. As an integrated social service grocery store, DMG Foods will provide workforce development, nutritional classes, and other essential services to the community while at the same time providing healthy food options. The effort is the culmination of a multiyear planning process, and has several key partners including the Maryland Food Bank, which will provide daily meal solutions and cooking demonstrations for customers. The store also leverages the broad appeal of membership clubs with its signature Red Shield Club card.
Central to its overall strategy, DMG foods hopes to leverage SNAP dollars provided through the USDA to low income Americans, with a stated goal of doubling the amount of foods customers can purchase with SNAP benefits, which in Maryland is roughly $4 per day, or $119 per month. Utilizing and extending the purchasing power of SNAP benefits is a trend that has garnered national attention, especially as it relates to healthy food. Organizations such as the Fair Food Network are pioneers in this area, with their Double Up Food Bucks program that matches the value of SNAP dollars when spent on fruits and vegetables. This model has been replicated around the country and has been invested in by governments, foundations, corporations, and even healthcare systems that recognize the importance of regular fruit and vegetable consumption. For many, the SNAP program is seen as the nation’s most effective anti-hunger program, making the proposed $213 billion cut over 10 years in the latest budget proposal very troubling. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, the proposed restructuring and cuts would result in an over 30 percent cut in the program, and would cut eligibility of at least 4 million people, while reducing the benefits for millions more. What’s most concerning is how the proposed restructuring would actually hinder access to fresh foods through a proposed food box consisting of non-perishable items, as well as by cutting SNAP’s nutrition education program as well as incentives to increase healthy food purchases (Food Insecurity and Nutrition Incentive grant program).
Bold innovative projects such as DMG should be celebrated, especially when they leverage public dollars to meet chronic needs. The SNAP program is one of many federal programs that communities have used to combat the detrimental impacts of low food access. Programs such as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which is up for reauthorization, have created thousands of jobs in low income communities, while providing a solid and reliable location for communities to gather and access much needed fruit and vegetables. Increasingly, nonprofits see issues such as food access as critical to achieving broader goals of equity, and while tools and platforms such as the Healthy Food Access Portal give nonprofits and community groups the tools, funding opportunities, and resources they need to initiate successful food access programs, much work is still needed. Looking to examples like DMG Foods, nonprofits can learn not only how to expand business principles into their operations, but also to look at how partnerships can address existing community needs through new and innovative approaches.—Derrick Rhayn