Economy

Baltimore Is Tackling Its Food Justice Problem With Giant Tax Breaks For Grocers

CREDIT: Flickr/Paul Sableman

A quarter of Baltimore relies on convenience stores because full supermarkets are inaccessible

With nutritious groceries out of reach for about one in every four Baltimore residents, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) announced plans to lure more private investment into the city’s “food deserts” on Monday.

The city will forgive a huge chunk of grocery store owners’ tax obligations if they contribute to a significant improvement in healthy food shopping options in neighborhoods that are currently cut off from ready access to fresh and healthy ingredients.

Qualifying store-owners would get 80 percent knocked off their property tax bill for 10 years. Owners building a new supermarket or improving an existing, smaller store within a quarter-mile of a food desert or spending to improve an existing location would be eligible for the relief, provided their expenses meet a certain threshold. The break could be worth over $100,000 a year to some owners according to the Baltimore Sun.

The tax break proposal responds to a call issued in June by the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative (BFPI), a project of various city agencies and researchers at Johns Hopkins University. A full quarter of Baltimore lives in a neighborhood that meets the BFPI definition of a food desert. The share of city children living in them is even higher, at 30 percent.

The city’s black population is more than four times as likely to live in a food desert than its white population, the group found, and those food stores that do serve predominantly African-American neighborhoods score especially low on a nutritional measure of shop inventories.

A food desert is an area with no supermarket within a quarter mile, a median income below 185 percent of the poverty line, low availability of healthy food at non-supermarket stores, and below-average access to a car to go shopping. Over 158,000 Baltimore residents live in such neighborhoods. The BFPI report calls for financial incentives like the ones Rawlings-Blake announced Monday, and a variety of other intercessions using public resources.

The overlapping policies are aimed at irrigating food deserts by force, instead of waiting for commercial development and gentrification to do the work as they typically do elsewhere. Gentrification is often a product of public policy choices, not just a passive market reaction to neighborhood economics. When cities choose to solve their food deserts that way, the services available in a neighborhood only improve markedly as the people who endured the area’s long fallow period are being priced out.

Rawlings-Blake seems to be aiming for a different array of choices. The tax incentives announced Monday are one component of a more aggressive public intervention in Baltimore that could pre-empt gentrification’s sad cycle, and make some of the city’s most neglected corners substantially more livable for their current inhabitants.

By mixing tax incentives with more direct interventions, Rawlings-Blake seems to be addressing some of the major critiques of “food desert” thinking in public policy. Primary among these concerns is that the concept oversimplifies the nutritional issues facing these communities by making their food access problems sound like a matter of simple geography. That framing papers over key economic and cultural factors. As writer Vann Newkirk has reported, the catchy phrase sometimes gets used as justification for bringing in businesses that aren’t appropriate to the needs of the communities labeled “deserts.”

Baltimore is trying to bolster existing shops as well as lure new ones. The BFPI coalition is already working with a pair of publicly-owned indoor food markets in desert areas to improve their offerings. The city’s Healthy Corner Stores program works with the bodegas and small grocery shops that are the primary form of access to fresh food in deserts, in hopes of bringing healthier, fresher grocery offerings to the stores where people already shop.

The tax breaks themselves are not a pioneering idea. Washington, D.C., New York City, and various other local governments have deployed similar policies to cure their food deserts in the past. Their experience indicates that lawmakers can’t simply set it and forget it with these ideas, as shifting demographics and needs over time require the policies to be retooled as community needs change.

No matter how robustly maintained, incentives to shape private business behavior can’t entirely substitute for direct public services. The maps of Baltimore’s food landscape that the BFPI produced in June illustrate that point, showing the various non-profits and public programs that seek to address nutritional shortfalls in and around the city’s deserts. Predictably for a city where 5 out of every 6 schoolchildren are eligible for free school meals, after-school food programs and summer meal systems linked to free-lunch eligibility serve an important bridge function.

Due to fiscal pressures, Baltimore has had to pull back from community service spending in general during Rawlings-Blake’s tenure. Community leaders have pointed to the administration’s closure of multiple youth rec centers around the city as an example of how such budget decisions undermine quality of life for the most impoverished parts of Baltimore and exacerbate class tension.

Days of rioting and protest followed the Baltimore Police Department’s killing of Freddie Gray earlier this year. As with Ferguson before it, the unrest was sparked by abusive law enforcement practices but fueled by generations of socioeconomic decay. Institutions that are supposed to ensure working people live a dignified and healthy life – public services, banks, and even grocery stores – have withdrawn from the country’s poorest, blackest communities. Rawlings-Blake’s cash-strapped city has a very limited capacity to invest in turning things around.

But when it comes to food, the city is able to tap into federal resources to expand its offerings rather than contracting them. All Baltimore public school system students are now able to get free meals at school under a law passed in late spring.

Whatever the city spends on tax incentives to private grocers, direct investments in feeding its children, and inventory improvement partnerships with existing corner stores, the long-term benefits are likely to outweigh the short-term costs. Hungry kids are far likelier to become expensive adults: They have higher instances of behavioral problems, poorer educational outcomes, higher risk of health issues, and are more likely to end up in jail as grown-ups.

In a sense, then, Rawlings-Blake and BFPI’s efforts are more than a feel-good effort at extending a higher quality of life to the city’s marginalized. They’re also a bid to prevent the very fabric of Baltimore from fraying even further.