Virtual Supermarket Delivers Groceries to Food Deserts

Aug 11, 2010
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.
Though some convenience stores have begun to offer healthier food options, locations with fresh produce and whole grains are still rare. (Photo: Everything and the rest /Creative Commons)

When Baltimore's first-ever food czar, Holly Freishtat, was appointed to work alongside the Baltimore City Food Policy Task Force, she had plenty of good ideas: new zoning for urban gardens, food stamp acceptance at farmers markets, and healthier food in corner stores, to name a few.

But her plan for a virtual supermarket took the lead, and is now getting food to people who previously found themselves stranded in "food deserts."

The virtual supermarket—created through collaboration between the health department, two libraries, and Santoni's Supermarket—allows Baltimoreans to order groceries online from local library computers and pay in cash, credit, checks or food stamps.

The following day, they can return for their groceries.

Operating at two centrally located libraries, the program makes healthy diet staples available to people who would otherwise have to take several buses or walk long distances to reach the nearest grocery store. One location, the Washington Village library, is in an area with 11.8 to 17.9 corner, convenience, or grocery stores per 10,000 residents. The other, the Orleans grocery store, has even fewer markets—just 2.86 to 6.7 markets per 10,000 residents.

The Baltimore City Health department says the convenience of the program will allow residents a wider selection of fruits, veggies, grains and dairy, and will allow fairer prices by cutting out the middleman fee for delivery.

"Consumers do not have to navigate public transportation to get to the grocery store, nor will they have to manage hectic schedules and childcare," notes Baltimore's health department, putting a priority on removing major barriers to access:

The hope is that this program will provide better food options and open other doors for Baltimore residents to improve their overall health. From the Baltimore City Health Department site:

The overall implication, of course, is for health. Risks for obesity, CVD (cardiovascular disease), 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. 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.

In time, city parks and rec facilities will also be sites for virtual supermarkets.

Beth Strommen, director of the city's Office of Sustainabilty, intends to implement the plans for urban gardens. She's called on Freishtat to help identify the best garden sites. Baltimore has 10,000 vacant lots; all that's missing is a zoning law legalizing inner city gardens.

"I see myself as a person who's there to help [farmers and people who want to garden] navigate the bureaucracy. The whole concept of farming in the city is new," Strommen says. "What I've got to do to make this work right now is to keep their costs down."

Photo: Everything and the rest /Creative Commons via Flickr

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