Students explore food options for Baltimore’s low-income residents.
Students Explore Food Options for Baltimore’s Low-Income Residents
By Mary Zajac
Photography by Mike Ciesielski
At 8 a.m., the 32nd Street Farmers Market is already a jumble of customers jostling each other with elbows and canvas bags as they vie for fresh peas, quarts of strawberries, and the spindly basil seedlings that mark the start of summer. A folk singer with a beat-up guitar croons “Freedom,” Richie Havens-style; the man who hawks radical newspapers has already asked several dozen shoppers if they’re ready for the revolution.
On this blazing, bright Saturday morning in June, political science Professor Adam Sheingate lingers in some nearby shade. In shorts and T-shirt, a lobster adorning his navy blue baseball cap, Sheingate could be mistaken for a student from the Baltimore Food System Research class he designed and taught for the first time this past summer. Only the clipboard in his hand and the small group of students circling around him, waiting for instruction for the day’s assignment, suggest otherwise.
Baltimore Food System Research began as an outgrowth of Sheingate’s tremendously popular Food Politics class (70–75 students are often on the waiting list for one of 15 coveted seats). The course covers a range of issues about food on the national and international level, including topics like food subsidies, regulation, and organic labeling. Sheingate wanted to address similar issues with students, but in a more concentrated way and on a local level. So he came up with the idea of a summer course that examines the issues prompted by food disparities by using Baltimore as a research site.
Low-income Baltimoreans often live in food deserts, a term that describes neighborhoods with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Rather than shop at supermarkets—which are often miles away—residents must opt for corner stores that offer few fresh or healthy food options. Food is more costly since these stores lack the economies of scale their larger competitors enjoy. Food deserts lead to poor eating habits, which can contribute to a host of health issues including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
The good news is that groups in the city, including some at Johns Hopkins, are addressing the problem through myriad solutions.
“As a political scientist, I’m interested more generally in the possibilities and the processes through which change takes place in policy and politics,” says Sheingate. “In Baltimore, innovations and experiments in expanding food access are bubbling up from various sources and through collaborations between academics, food justice advocates, nonprofits, and city government. My students studied some of these innovations and experiments.”
One of the students’ first assignments is to spend the morning at the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Baltimore’s Waverly neighborhood, where they are charged with conducting a survey of low-income shoppers on behalf of Maryland Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit established to fight hunger and improve the nutrition, health, and well-being of children and families. The survey measures the use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as “food stamps,” at local farmers markets. The data collected by the class will be included with other survey data collected by Maryland Hunger Solutions.
“From an academic perspective, it’s great to have the students working in the community, but I also try to teach them about political science and how social scientists approach certain problems.”
To prepare for the visit, class discussions focused on the role farmers markets can play in bringing fresh produce to low-income communities. For example, the markets can provide the technology to shoppers and vendors for transactions via Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards and offer special incentives like Baltimore Bucks (which stretch participants’ food stamp dollars by doubling them up to $10). The students practiced survey techniques in class, and also heard from experts from the Maryland Department of Agriculture and Maryland Hunger Solutions, who addressed the economic impact of farmers markets and ways of getting SNAP participants to shop there.
Once at the market, students take turns standing at the entrances, counting the number of shoppers and surveying those who are redeeming food supplement benefits at the market’s EBT tent. The survey asks a range of questions, from where shoppers live and how they get to the farmers market to how often they shop there, and if shopping at the market has changed their weekly intake of fruits and vegetables.
Sitting on canvas chairs under the EBT tent, political science major Zach David ’14 interviews a shopper in a red sweatshirt. “She was very relaxed and had no inhibitions about answering the questions,” reports David, after the interview. David discovered that this shopper lives in the market’s zip code and says that shopping at the market had increased her daily intake of fruits and vegetables. She also believed that the market’s acceptance of EBT cards positively affected her decision to shop there—all important data for Maryland Hunger Solutions, which hopes to increase the number of markets that accept these benefits.
During the interview, the shopper revealed that she was unaware of the Baltimore Bucks program and asked for information on how to sign up for WIC (Women, Infants, Children) benefits—information David and a market staff member were about to provide even though it wasn’t part of the survey. “We were able to get answers to her questions right there,” he says. “So we weren’t just collecting survey data but actually helping someone get accurate information.” Although not an obvious part of the assignment, this kind of lesson is just as important, says Sheingate. Negotiating the benefits system is complicated—from obtaining specific benefits to learning how they can be used. “Part of what we’re learning is all of the different things people have to do to get benefits. They do not make it easy to get benefits.”
“From an academic perspective, it’s great to have the students working in the community, but I also try to teach them about political science and how social scientists approach certain problems,” says Sheingate. “I want them to know the tools they have at their disposal and be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different research methods.” Learning which methodology is appropriate for collecting certain kinds of data, as well as realizing the limitations of a survey or an interview, makes students stronger researchers.
During a visit to the Franciscan Center, a soup kitchen and community outreach center run by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, the students engaged in participant-observation. “I told them, ‘You’re doing research from the moment you walk into the Franciscan Center to the moment you leave,’” says Sheingate. “And they wrote these really perceptive field notes. They noticed things that they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t been keyed in—snippets of conversation between people, or the way people interacted in the hall when they were getting their food.”
Several students reported being surprised by the amount of fresh food being served at the center (“I worked at other food pantries where we just had canned food,” explained Laura Walker ’16, a public health and Writing Seminars double major), and by the Community Supported Agriculture program the center operates that supplies clients with fresh fruits and vegetables.
“This class made me determined to volunteer [at Real Food Farm]—not because something cleared up in my schedule, but because I knew I had to make time.”
—Zach David ’14
The course’s final community research component took students to two food markets to conduct the Nutrition Environment Measures Survey (NEMS), which measures the amount and variety of healthy food options in a given food market by assigning points to certain products like fruits and vegetables, diet sodas, and lower-fat varieties of milk. The survey is often used to evaluate healthy food availability in food deserts.
Students break into pairs and scour the shops—Eddie’s Market and University Market, both in the Charles Village neighborhood—examining and comparing everything from packets of hot dogs for nutritional information to the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables. In addition to learning how to use the survey, the students are “trying to understand the research behind the measure,” says Sheingate as he watches them peer into cold cases of frozen dinners to tally their findings.
This becomes clear back on campus, when the class gathers to compare and evaluate their data. “I want to show my students how challenging it can be to develop a measure to study the food environment,” says Sheingate. “Do we have an objective, consistent measure among groups?”
Not really, it turns out. Tracking down an item such as hot dogs is relatively easy. Determining whether or not it counts as healthy is another issue. In going over the surveys, some students realized they included “low-fat” hot dogs that contained 8 grams of fat, when the survey requires that low-fat hot dogs contain less than 7 grams of fat. This leads to a discussion of whether labels like “lite” and “low fat” really designate low calorie counts.
Leela Subramaniam ’16 raises the issue of quality when she points out that the survey only asks if fruits and vegetables are “acceptable” or “unacceptable” allowing a wide margin for freshness, she argues, while Yael Fishbein ’14 questions that the measure doesn’t distinguish between the availability of several apples in one market versus an entire bin of different varieties of apples at another. Sheingate appreciates how students wrestle with the subtleties of the survey instrument, but points out that at the moment, this is one of the most effective tools they have. “The point is, how do we do this work?” he says. “How do we measure a food environment?”
When pressed to come up with analysis and suggestions to the problem of food access in Baltimore, Sheingate’s 10 students offered 10 different approaches. May Ou ’14 would like to see more stops for the Mobile Market, the mobile van of Real Food Farm, which brings fresh, pesticide-free produce grown in the farm’s Clifton Park greenhouses to neighboring communities.
Naomi Pitkin ’14 addresses the gap between accessibility and user knowledge by proposing cooking demonstrations at the farmers market that teach consumers how to prepare produce (both familiar and unfamiliar) in healthy ways. Zach David suggests a longitudinal study in addition to the SNAP survey, which he describes as “a piece of the bigger puzzle.” David has truly embraced the class, and spent the rest of the summer volunteering at Real Food Farm. “I had wanted to do some volunteer work but didn’t know how I was going to fit it into my schedule,” he says. “This class made me determined to volunteer—not because something cleared up in my schedule but because I knew I had to make time.”
David’s volunteer work is the basis of an independent study he is taking this semester with Sheingate, who hopes David’s work will be a model of sorts for future internships in the social policy arena.
“One of the things the class did is close the loop between the research that identifies the problem and the research that evaluates the policy,” says Sheingate. “The students showed me that they are interested in these food initiatives and that they can be very effective researchers.”