Kaid Benfield Archive


Baltimore’s Virtual Supermarket fills the gap in food-deprived neighborhoods

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 14, 2010 at 1:34PM

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Thanks to Daniel and his thoughtful blog Discovering Urbanism for highlighting an innovative program designed to help residents of urban “food deserts” - neighborhoods without nearby access to supermarkets - obtain fresh, healthy food more conveniently.  The program also helps draw patrons to two branch libraries by facilitating online food shopping from the libraries’ computers, with next-day deliveries to the same branches.  This allows the sellers to keep costs and prices reasonable by consolidating delivery times and locations.

In particular, in March of this year the Baltimore City Health Department launched its Virtual Supermarket Project, operating at the Washington Village and Orleans Street (East Baltimore) library branches.  Both sites are located in areas identified as having a need for healthy food options. Washington Village has the 6th highest mortality burden out of 55 city community areas for causes of death related to diet, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  The neighborhood where the Orleans Street library is located ranked 19th in this category.

  Douglas Homes & Popeye's, Orleans St & Broadway, Baltimore (via Google Earth)

In the photo above, for example, Douglas Homes (red brick building), near the Orleans Street branch library, has a nearby Popeye's but no nearby supermarket.

The Virtual Supermarket Project was piloted last year as an innovative way to address food access problems in Baltimore City.  The Health Department partnered with the Enoch Pratt Free Library (the city’s public library), which offered to house the program.  Santoni’s Supermarket, a long-time Baltimore grocer, is currently the primary provider of supermarket items for the program.  The Center for Design Practice at the Maryland Institute College of Art provided ideas on marketing and branding the project.

  the Washington Village branch library (by: Enoch Pratt Free Library)

Urban “food deserts” are neighborhoods with no supermarkets or other resources that would provide healthy, inexpensive food within walking distance. Convenience stores and fast food or take-out restaurants may be common in these areas, but they generally do not offer fresh produce or much in the way of healthy menu options.  In addition, few residents of the neighborhoods targeted by the program own their own vehicles (66% of the households in the Perkins/Middle East area do not have vehicles; 48% in Washington Village do not have vehicles), making travel to a distant supermarket an obstacle.

The program’s website explains its benefits:

“Consumers will receive a printout of their order and pay at the time of ordering with [cash, checks, credit cards or food stamps]. The Virtual Supermarket submits one aggregate Internet order per session, and the Baltimore City Health Department subsidizes this delivery charge. a street in Baltimore's Washington Village (by: Elliott Plack, creative commons license)Groceries will be delivered to the ordering site the same or next business day, where consumers will return to pick-up their orders. They will be provided with a list at the delivery time to confirm that all ordered items are included in their package.

“This system benefits the consumer because a wider selection of high quality fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy is made available in the neighborhood than is offered by local corner stores. Pooling purchases for delivery at one convenient site allows consumers to circumvent the delivery fee and the requirement that a certain amount of money be spent for the order to be delivered. Consumers do not have to navigate public transportation to get to the grocery store, nor will they have to manage hectic schedules and childcare to dedicate time to grocery shopping . . .

“Development of this model in Baltimore can result in the Virtual Supermarket's adoption in other US cities that struggle with food deserts. The overall implication, of course, is for health. Risks for obesity, CVD, and diabetes are strongly tied to diet, and research has found consistent evidence that diet is greatly affected by one's food environment and built/social environment. Santoni's supermarket (by: Santoni's)That is, people's eating behaviors are largely influenced by their community context, which acts to promote or restrict healthy eating. Removal of an access barrier to healthier foods via the power of the marketplace will be an important step towards ensuring that all consumers in this country, regardless of location, race, or income levels, can enjoy a range of healthy foods at fair prices. In an era where over half of disease is caused by unhealthy lifestyles and the obesity epidemic is cutting lives short, public health agencies and grocery stores can partner in a win-win scenario to expand choice and, by proxy, improve the range of foods that enable urban consumers to eat healthy and live healthier lives.”

The Health Department is also looking into the possibility of an additional site within the city’s recreation and parks system.  The project is currently funded with a $60,000 grant from the 2009 federal stimulus package.

Daniel’s post contains some additional links and a food-desert map; it can be accessed here.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.