Community Food Security: The Baltimore City Model

Central to the holiday of Thanksgiving is the celebration of food. The holiday’s focus on food reminds us of its absence and draws our attention to the very real epidemic of hunger in the United States and in the Tribal Nations.

49 million Americans were living in food-insecure households as of 2012 [1]. Rates of food insecurity are significantly higher for households living at or below the poverty line and for single-headed households [2]. Food insecurity hits historically-oppressed peoples the hardest. Food insecurity rates for Indigenous children, for instance, reach 40% in some areas.[3]

Over 22% of American Indian adults and 25% of Black households are food insecure. This percentage is only slightly lower for Latino households at 23.7% [4]. Food insecurity not only decides day-to-day survival and quality of life, but makes communities more vulnerable to disasters, including natural disasters, extreme weather, and disease. Food insecure households are unable to stock food stores for emergency situations and will be hit hardest by obstructed food supplies. (You can map food insecurity in your own jurisdiction here.)

Source: United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. (2013). December 2013 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement.

Source: United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. (2013). December 2013 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food” [5]. Notably, USDA frames food insecurity as a household-level problem rather than a community-level problem. Rarely are hunger and food insecurity treated as systemic and tied to issues of unsustainable and inequitable food supply chains. The United States produces more than enough food to feed itself. Food scarcity, in the US at least, is an issue of distribution and not of production.

Anti-hunger initiatives (think annual canned food drives) treat acute hunger. These can provide a family with a meal, but they do not result in food security, a state in which, “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” [6].

Food security is more than just the absence of hunger. The Community Food Security (CFS) model recognizes this. CFS treats food insecurity as part of a complex tangle of socioeconomic and political issues. CFS is designed for the local level and starts with a community assessing its own needs and barriers to securing an adequate food supply. CFS takes a preventative approach, tackling food insecurity through policy changes, grassroots programs, and political activism.

Baltimore City has put the CFS model into action. As of 2012, 1 in 4 of Baltimore’s African-American residents lived in a food desert [7] and 22.6 percent of the Baltimore City population was food insecure [8]. Since 2009, a coalition of city departments have worked to change this and to put an end to Baltimore’s food deserts and swamps.

In 2008, the Baltimore City Office of Sustainability drafted its Baltimore Sustainability Plan. Importantly, the plan adopted food security as one of its “Greening Goals” (“Establish Baltimore as a leader in sustainable, local food systems”). The plan was adopted and resulted in the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative (BFPI) and the subsequent Food Policy Task Force. In 2009, the Task Force released a series of groundbreaking recommendations. These recommendations later dovetailed with the Baltimore City Health Departments’ Community Health Assessment, which includes the Healthy Baltimore 2015 plan.

The core BFPI partners include the Office of Sustainability, the Health Department, the Office of Planning, and the Center for a Livable Future. Their collaborations have resulted in cross-cutting programs. Some highlights include the following:

  • The Health Department Baltimarket programs, which include virtual supermarkets. Residents can order groceries online at designated locations (libraries, public housing) and then pick up their groceries at an accessible location.
  • Major changes to Zoning and Permitting regulations. Before 2012, community gardens and farms were not permitted in Baltimore. Now, multi-household gardens are permitted in all zoning districts; urban agriculture is allowed outside of industrial zones. The health code was also changed to allow for animal husbandry. Baltimore residents can now keep chickens, rabbits, bees, and even goats!
  • As a result of these zoning changes, vacant lots can now be converted to farms through the Vacants to Value program. Participants commit to five-year leases, at $100 a year. Five farms have been signed up thus far.
  • BFPI is changing school meals. Programs include Get Fresh Baltimore and Days of Taste, which are farm-to-table, nutritional education programs. The DC Central Kitchen Model has also been introduced to ten Baltimore schools. DC Central Kitchen (DCDK) provides thousands of healthy student meals a day, while sourcing 30 percent of its produce from local farms. DCCK also hires qualified people with a history of unemployment, providing them with culinary training and job security.

What is your health department doing to tackle hunger and food insecurity? How are you partnering with other departments to end hunger in your community? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

About Erin Roberts

Erin Roberts, MPH, is a Program Analyst on the Environmental Health, Pandemic Preparedness, and Catastrophic Response team at NACCHO. Her work includes broadening the public's access to medical countermeasures during a severe pandemic, fostering collaboration between public health and pharmacy, and contributing to NACCHO's food safety initiatives.

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