On a bright spring morning in Baltimore, retiree Gwen Tates goes over her weekly grocery list -- oatmeal, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, pea soup. But it's where she's shopping that might surprise you: at the public library.
Under a new city program, patrons can order groceries online and pay with cash, credit or food stamps. The orders are filled by Santoni's supermarket, a longtime Baltimore grocer. They deliver the items to the library the next day. Tates says she loves the convenience.
"I pay with my charge card. They swipe it right here. I come back to the library tomorrow and they'll have it all bagged up and ready to go," she says.
The Virtual Supermarket Project is part of a city push to make healthy food more accessible in communities where major supermarkets are scarce. Baltimore's health department launched it last month at two of the city's public library branches. They're located on opposite ends of town: one neighborhood is mostly African-American and working-class, the other racially and economically mixed.
These areas lack large, competitively priced supermarkets within walking distance -- sometimes called "food deserts." Both communities have plenty of fast-food and corner stores, but many tend to offer less healthy fare.
"In Baltimore, where we're working at with the libraries, you see that the mortality burden from diet-related causes like diabetes, stroke and heart disease are among the highest in the city," says Ryan Petteway, a city epidemiologist.
Petteway and other health department staffers spend a few hours each week helping patrons order their groceries online. One is Jackie Coles, a single mother of three who works as a custodian.
Like most in this neighborhood, she doesn't own a car.
"The market around here has been closed for a little over a year," Coles says. "And you have to go so far to get to another market. You know, you have to pay somebody to take you. Or it's a long walk."
But Coles is now a regular at the library. She gets books, plus easy access to healthier food options.
"Fruit is fresh. The vegetables are fresh. I get the butchered meat and all. It's really good," she says.
Getting People To Try Something New
So far, about two dozen people have signed up for the program. It's currently funded by a $60,000 grant from the federal stimulus package.
It's too soon to determine long-term viability, but organizers are hopeful.
"It's just a matter of getting people to overcome the barrier of trying something new," says Pooja Aggarwal, a medical student at Johns Hopkins who's taken a year off to tackle public health projects like this one.
Baltimore's new mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, thinks the project is an innovative solution until more major supermarkets build in these neighborhoods.
"I think at a point when we are doing what we need to do to make our city better, safer and stronger, we'll attract that investment," she says. "But I'm so proud that we have the use of technology to fill in that gap till development catches up."
Baltimore library officials say other cities have inquired about possibly replicating their system. If the program is successful, the goal is to partner with additional stores and possibly expand to other parts of the city.