21CC Supports New Report on Baltimore’s Food System

 In Research

By Lydia Dubois and Maleka Walker

More than two years after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and ensuing unrest that rocked Baltimore City, there has been much discussion in the city and beyond about community-law enforcement relationships, educational and economic opportunity for youth, and other topics relating to the health and well-being of Baltimore and its most disadvantaged residents.

One topic that has been less discussed, but is vitally important, is Baltimore’s food resiliency and preparedness in the aftermath of natural disasters like superstorms driven by climate change and man-made disasters such as the April 2015 riots. Following the unrest, Baltimore’s food system was significantly compromised when more than 100 retail businesses that sell food were affected by the events, whether through physical damage to the buildings themselves, or through theft of personal property or inventory. About a quarter of those businesses are located in food deserts, meaning that they could have been important food sources for many residents. Furthermore, a 10pm curfew put into place after the rioting prevented overnight food deliveries to the food stores that remained open.

In response to these challenges, and in a larger effort to strengthen the resilience of Baltimore’s food system, the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health teamed up with the Baltimore Office of Sustainability to develop a comprehensive, Baltimore Food System Resilience Advisory Report. Recommendations from the report, which was released today, will be used to develop a Food System Resilience Plan for the city and update Baltimore’s Disaster Preparedness Plan (DP3). These plans play a central role guiding the city’s emergency management and response efforts.

The 21st Century Cities Initiative provided grant funding to CLF for this project, which exemplifies the type of action-oriented, applied policy research that 21CC seeks to support.

The research included interviews with community stakeholders such as distributors, food assistance organizations, and retailers to identify key vulnerabilities of the food system. Findings included the difference in readiness of larger businesses compared to smaller businesses in dealing with unexpected threats to food security, and the difficulties food assistance organizations experience in coordinating pre-emergency planning such as the ability to reach populations they serve with limited financial resources.

Despite being a city with a significant sea port, the report also finds that Baltimore is reliant on roadways for its food security. In fact, 96.4 percent of inflows of food arrive in Baltimore by truck. Labor shortages and possible road blockages pose major threats to food security. Baltimore’s alternate transport routes, such as railways, the sea port, and heliports remain particularly vulnerable to natural hazards and do not always provide secure alternatives.

Previous research conducted by CLF shows that 86 percent of Baltimore City residents live more than a quarter of a mile from a supermarket, while 30 percent lack vehicle access and 33 percent are located more than than 15 minutes away from a healthy food source by transit on a weekday. While accessing food is usually difficult for these individuals, events like the April 2015 unrest intensified the challenge due to the curfew, discontinuation of public transit services, and closure of smaller stores due to looting or concerns of more violence. In addition, subsequent school closings affected both access to food and free lunch programs that sustain many children twice daily.

The Food System Resilience Advisory Report makes recommendations for improving food security after disasters by addressing potential vulnerabilities across the food system – from improving food access, to developing backup supply chains, to connecting communities and non-profits with resources for emergency food preparedness.

The work of CLF and the Office of Sustainability is helping to make Baltimore a leader in food system preparedness, along with cities like Toronto and San Francisco, and a small but growing number of cities that are paying closer attention to food system resilience in response to disasters, unrest, or financial shortfalls. This new report will not only contribute to Baltimore’s resilience, but it can serve as a useful guide for other cities working to strengthen their food systems.

Lydia Dubois is a senior at Johns Hopkins University from New York City majoring in Sociology with a minor in Social Policy. Maleka Walker is a junior at Johns Hopkins University from Atlanta majoring in Public Health with a minor in Social Policy. 

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