Urban Food Systems: Case Study of Baltimore Food Policy Initiative


A highly urbanised world puts tremendous influence and demand on the food systems, affecting their management, functioning and performance (Fang et al., 2017). The diet of the people and the style of production and distribution of food affects its accessibility, affordability, the related job opportunities, etc. Currently, the cities lack relevant data and empirical analysis on food systems (Fang et al., 2017). The lack of data leads to lack in understanding issues and prioritising relevant projects and programs. Inefficiency of policies leads to inequitable access to food leading to creation of food deserts.

An area where inhabitants have low access to affordable and healthy food is referred as a food desert. The definition and the way to measure it varies. Some focus on the number of stores within a specific distance (Hendrickson, Smith, & Eikenberry, 2006), and some other emphasise the quality of food available (Cummins & Macintyre, 2002). The John Hopkins Centre for a Liveable Future, designates an areas as a food desert if (Biehl et al., 2017):

  • The distance to a supermarket is above ¼ mile
  • The median household income is at or below 185% of the Federal Poverty Level.
  • Over 30% of households do not have a vehicle available.
  • Healthy Food Availability – The average Healthy Food Availability Index score for all food stores is low.

In 2017, 12.5% of the population of US didn’t have proper access to healthy and affordable food (Feeding America, 2019) mainly because of 2 reasons:

  1. The lack of financial resources (Breyer & Voss-Andreae, 2013).
  2. Supermarkets and groceries lacking accessibility due to higher logistical cost (Walker, Keane, & Burke, 2010). Testimonies and case studies show people travelling 1h to reach the first affordable supermarket (Butler, 2018).

As people tend to make food choices based on the availability in his/her surrounding areas (Furey, Strugnell, & McIlveen, 2001), food deserts have a high impact on the inhabitant’s health. Being far from a supermarket or in an inaccessible environment favours an unhealthy diet (Moore, Diez Roux, Nettleton, & Jacobs, 2008)(Rose & Richards, 2007) resulting into obesity and hypertension. Food desert is also a matter of inequality. Morland et al. showed that in the US, poorer neighbourhoods have more small corner grocery stores. Smaller shops are more likely to offer lesser choice and lack fresh and healthier products (Laska, Borradaile, Tester, Foster, & Gittelsohn, 2009; Block & Kouba, 2007).

Food deserts exemplifies strong impacts of spatial environment on social issues. In the early 2000’s, it was often neglected in urban planning practices due to many speculations like considering it as an issue in the rural areas, etc. (Pothukuchi & Kaufman, 2000). However, it is rather important to understand that cities need to implement policies in order to have a positive impact on food accessibility. This article will focus on the case of the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, in the USA. It shows different methods they used to obtain concrete results concerning food security and food deserts in Baltimore.

The Baltimore Food Policy Initiative

Food insecurity

Food insecurity is the inability to provide “access to all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life” (USDA, 2018). Food deserts are identified based on two indicators: the food insecurity rate and the Healthy Food Availability Index (HFAI). The collection of data enables the authorities to draw an overview of the food desert and food insecurity problems in Baltimore. They measure accessibility as well as quality of the accessible food.

In 2015, the food insecurity rate in the US was 13.4%. In comparison, Baltimore city was at 23.2% (Feeding America, 2019), and 23.8% in 2014 (Biehl et al., 2017).

Figure 1 – Baltimore City’s food deserts. (Misiaszek, Buzogany, & Freishtat, 2018)

The HFAI is derived from the Nutrition Environment Measures Survey for Stores. It is calculated by awarding points regarding the availability of healthy food options like products containing whole-wheat grain or proteins (Misiaszek, Buzogany, & Freishtat, 2018). It ranks from 0 to 28.5, and a higher score indicates the presence of healthier food. The table provides data on the city of Baltimore. We see that even though supermarkets present a higher HFAI, the majority of the city’s stores are around 9 and present less possibilities for residents of the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Figure 2 – Healthy Food Availability Index Findings (Misiaszek et al., 2018)

Origins of BFPI

From the early 2000’s, various individual efforts started taking place in Baltimore to tackle the food insecurity (Santo, Yong, & Palmer, 2014). To bring these stakeholders together, the mayor of Baltimore launched in 2009 the Baltimore Food Policy Task Force and released a list of recommendations as a roadmap for action for a healthy and sustainable food system (Santo et al., 2014). In 2010, this led to the the establishment of the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative (BFPI), a new intergovernmental collaboration. The Food Policy Action Coalition puts together as much as 60 Baltimore stakeholders (NGOs, farms, universities, businesses, hospitals, residents) with the objective to drive a concrete implementation of recommendations (Santo et al., 2014; City of Baltimore, 2018).

The objective of the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative is to “improve health outcomes by increasing access to healthy affordable food in Baltimore City’s food deserts” (City of Baltimore, 2018). Its actions can be parted in 3 axes:

  • Bring together a wide spectral of different actors in order to share information on food security subjects, and advise the city’s work on it.
  • Designate Resident Food Equity Advisors (RFEA). It is a group of citizens who represent all the city’s districts, and have an influence on the choices and policies (City of Baltimore, 2018).ƒƒ
  • Coordinate academic and research institutions work, who collect, analyse and disseminate data. The partners are John Hopkins Centre for Liveable Future, Bloomberg School of Public Health, and different universities (Swartz, Santo, & A. Neff, 2018).

To lead these actions, the BFPI adopted the Healthy Food Environment Strategy to have precise priorities (City of Baltimore, 2018). They cover

  • Actions on supply: increase the number of (City of Baltimore, n.d.) stores and the quality of food proposed
  • Actions on demand: promote nutrition assistance and address food accessibility
  • Promotion of alternatives: promote grassroots initiatives (with the help of RFEA) and urban agriculture.

BFPI acts at a local level, even if it can advocate on policies at state and federal level. They work with organisations in order to improve practices, and change regulations at the city level.


One of the city level policies is the personal property tax credits policy. Renovation or location of new stores in Grocery Store Incentive Areas give access to an 80% credit on furniture, fixtures and equipment over 10 years. The Grocery Store Incentive Areas have a covers large portions of Baltimore (Figure 3), it concerns (City of Baltimore, 2018):

  • Food deserts
  • The zones situated within a ¼ mile distance from a food desert
  • Zones that would be a food desert without the presence of a supermarket

Figure 3 – Map of the Grocery Store Incentive Areas

Stores can qualify for the tax reduction only if a significant part of their sale is dedicated to fresh fruits and vegetables (City of Baltimore, 2018). The BFPI also launched the Homegrown Baltimore programme. The objective is divided in 3 components:

  • Grow local – Promote urban agriculture
  • Buy local – Link producers and consumers with farm markets and make arrangements between farmers and schools, institutions and universities
  • Eat local – Provide education and incentives to promote consumption of locally produced food

For example, a partnership with the Managerial and Professional Society enables their employees to earn 250$ on participating in CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). In a survey held in 2014, 85% of the participants agreed that participating in CSA has motivated them to eat more vegetables. However, this programme still has a relatively lower impact concerning only 120 city employees (BFPI, 2015).

At the city level, BFPI also legislates health vending machines, food trucks, hoop houses and animal husbandry. Simultaneously, BFPI has also cooperated with the Maryland state and at federal level. For example, their influence led in the adaptation of the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to make it more sustainable for small businesses and increase the number of stores proposing this option. SNAP is a supplement to food budget for low-income families that encourages the purchase of healthy food. SNAP programme has lowered food insecurity by at least 18% for its participants (Mykerezi & Mills, 2010).

Some indicators give an overall idea of the impact of the BFPI policies in the city of Baltimore. The Feeding America website indicates that in 2017, 21,3% of the Baltimore citizens lived in food insecurity, compared to the 23,2% in 2015 (Feeding America, 2019). BFPI were a part of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact and received an award in 2016 for their use of intergovernmental collaboration.


The majority of these policies concentrate on adapting the offer. Accessibility, affordability and diversity are essential to enable everyone to consume healthier food. However, this is not sufficient, and policies for health and food security must also act based on demand. Concerning health issues, studies show that it is more efficient to act at the household level by improving the nutritional quality of the diets in comparison with the neighbourhood level by providing a supermarket or a store (Ver Ploeg & Wilde, 2018). BFPI proposes to focus on local solutions such as food assistance, targeted food price subsidies, or nutrition education. Use of behavioural economics is also been used to improve sales of healthy products in small retail stores (Mancino, Guthrie, & Just, 2018). These are new solutions to explore and involves various actors. The example of Baltimore illustrates how cities can have an impact on the reduction of food deserts. It affects the inhabitant’s health through the enhancement of their quality of life.