In 1910, Baltimore became the first city in the United States to institutionalize segregation. After decades of overturning and rewriting discriminatory housing laws, these laws, though no longer in effect, have become part of the life in Baltimore. A legacy of racist legislation has become closely tied to struggles with food access, both due to poverty and food desertification. The complex ties between food access and segregation require a multifaceted approach to addressing food insecurity. The Baltimore Hunger Project is one part of the network of Baltimore organizations that work to address this harm.
The process of racial segregation in Baltimore began in 1910, when George W.F. McMechen, a black man, purchased a house in a white neighborhood. In response, the mayor signed a law prohibiting black and white people from living in the same areas. This law was ruled unconstitutional, but it was followed by a series of practices that attempted to recreate its effects. Realtors refused to sell homes in white neighborhoods to black families. In the 1930s, banks redlined predominately black neighborhoods as unstable and refused to invest. As a result, black neighborhoods were underdeveloped and black individuals were systemically denied the ability to amass wealth. In the 1950s, realtors capitalized on racial discrimination in a process known as blockbusting, where they sold homes in white neighborhoods to black families at high rates. White families quickly moved out, and the realtors bought the whole block at cheap rates and sold the homes to black families at high rates. The result was the creation of black neighborhoods that were denied resources while white neighborhoods were granted more opportunities.
This process of racial discrimination continues to impact the patterns of hunger in Baltimore. By impoverishing black communities and individuals, it exacerbates rates of food insecurity. A 2018 report by Bread for the World found that race and gender intersect to raise levels of food insecurity, concluding that “since poverty rates are much higher and income levels are much lower in African American female-headed households compared to the general population, we expect that food-insecurity levels are also much higher among African American female-headed households.” At the same time, racial segregation makes access to nutritious food even more difficult. Food apartheid, also known as food deserts or Healthy Food Priority Areas, are places where supermarket flight and little financial investment limit the accessibility of healthy food. Smaller grocery stores and convenience stores struggle to stock staple foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains, which are more expensive than less nutritious alternatives. According to Baltimore City’s Food Environment 2018 Report, approximately 23 percent of Baltimore residents live in a food desert. Black residents are the most likely racial group to live within a food desert, with 31.5 percent of black Baltimoreans living in a food desert, compared to just 8.6 percent white Baltimoreans.
The connection between segregation and food inaccessibility in Baltimore is clear. However, there are a multitude of Baltimore organizations that work to address these inequalities. Baltimore Hunger Project operates in Baltimore City and Baltimore County to solve weekend hunger, addressing one part of issue of hunger. Other solutions, like community gardens and farmers markets, work to remove the reliance of supermarkets all together. The scope of food inaccessibility and racial segregation makes it clear that the solution requires a multifaceted approach. Fortunately, Baltimore is filled with a multitude of organizations, all working to address the issue of food insecurity from a unique angle.
Garret Power. “Apartheid Baltimore Style: The Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910-1913.” Maryland Law Review 42 no. 2 (1983): 289-329.