Op-ed: Maryland’s New Governor Has His Sights Set on Ending Food Insecurity | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Maryland’s New Governor Has His Sights Set on Ending Food Insecurity

Wes Moore, the state’s first Black governor, has an opportunity to put his food-systems experience to work in alleviating chronic food insecurity and the economic barriers that keep people hungry.

Maryland Governor Wes Moore delivers his inaugural address on the west side of the Maryland State House on January 18, 2023 in Annapolis, Maryland. Moore is the first Black governor of Maryland and only the third Black person to be elected governor in the United States. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last week, on a brisk morning, Wes Moore was inaugurated on the steps of the Maryland State House as the state’s 63rd governor—and its first Black governor. Supporters blanketed Main Street on the historic day in a scene reminiscent of Barack Obama’s inauguration, which took place just a handful of miles down the road on the storied Capitol Building steps in Washington, D.C.

Moore’s platform is just as meaningful as the community he represents. And when it comes to addressing hunger and food access in Maryland—a growing crisis here, as it is across the country—I’m optimistic that he could move the needle in historic ways.

“Feeding America estimates that the state needs nearly $300 million in funding per year to meet the food needs of everyone in the state.”

Governor Moore is known for his many years of military service, his handful of best-selling books, including The Other Wes Moore, and, more recently, his stint as the CEO of Robin Hood Foundation, the largest poverty-focused nonprofit organization in New York.

And while the latter half of Moore’s life reflects the American Dream, one that is prosperous, fulfilling, and transcends beyond the odds, the earlier parts of his life growing up with a single parent and facing consequences for committing petty crimes, reflect the challenges that many Marylanders and Americans have and continue to live through.

With 1 in 11 people and 1 in 8 children in Maryland facing hunger, many live below or close to the poverty line. Feeding America estimates that the state needs nearly $300 million in funding per year to meet the food needs of everyone in the state.

Moore appears to have a genuine desire to alleviate food insecurity in Maryland and address the barriers and externalities that prevent all people here from equitably accessing fresh and nutritious foods.

Much of Moore’s interest in food systems was made clear on the national scale well before his governor run. While he was CEO at Robin Hood, the organization developed a poverty tracker, accompanied by several reports that highlighted the association of poverty with trends related to various community challenges, with “food hardship” being one of the main topics.

They looked closely at the impacts of the pandemic, income, race, built-environment, infrastructure, waste, SNAP enrollment, and other barriers that prevent access to food. A few of the reports highlighted the fact that barriers to healthy food show up in a range of communities across a range of incomes.

While on the campaign trail, Moore released a comprehensive plan for Maryland that would foster economic equity by investing in STEM education, increasing talent recruitment efforts in the state, and raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, among other proposals. These steps would help ensure that all Marylanders could earn higher wages and afford more nutritious and fresher foods.

Moore’s then-running mate, Aruna Miller, said, “The Moore-Miller administration will fight for everyday families and get Marylanders to work with careers that impart dignity and jobs of the future. We will use this bold policy framework, as well as by understanding the intersections of the issues we face, leveraging every solution—transportation, education, food security, and more—to create progress.”

Moore also maintained focus on less direct barriers to food, like transportation to supermarkets, which is just as important, when it comes to food access, as making sure supermarkets exist in the first place.

Now, his term is coinciding with historical levels of federal transportation funding aimed at reconnecting and revitalizing communities, and I recommend he use it to bring more fresh foods to low-income communities and communities of color, which have historically been shut out of such access.

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The governor should then approve and fund projects like the Red Line in Baltimore, a major transportation project that would connect east and west Baltimore, affording thousands of residents greater access to healthier food options in the city. The line was cancelled by former Governor Larry Hogan years ago, but Moore has expressed a commitment to working with organizations like the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition (BTEC) to revive a process that would ensures that it comes to fruition.

On the table is also a competing project to widen I-270 freeway that may lead to the demolition of homes. Some politicians claim that the widening project will alleviate traffic congestion, although there are many studies that suggest that highway widening projects are correlated with increased pollution, congestion, the further bisecting of communities, and urban sprawl instead.

Widening projects like the one proposed for I-270 tend to lower access to fresh foods as we’ve seen in communities like the Tremé neighborhoods in New Orleans. Moore has yet to commit to a personal stance on the I-270 project, but I encourage him to instead use the available funds for public transportation options.

“Many of Baltimore’s Black residents have been working toward food sovereignty in the city by growing, eating, and sharing foods that are not only healthy but culturally appropriate.”

On his campaign website, the new governor offered an alternative to some of the sprawl that the I-270 project may induce, by adopting a “15-minute neighborhood” model, which will soon to be implemented near Salt Lake City. This model strategically rezones cross streets and creates new mini mixed-use main streets and town squares in residential neighborhoods, creating vibrant environments where residents can live, work, and play without having to drive long distances to obtain access to resources.

The Moore-Miller administration believes that this model could be implemented in Maryland and will provide communities a better solution to creating walkable micro neighborhoods and reducing congestion while providing access to community resources like fresh food markets.

The approach Moore takes to the minimum wage could also have a profound impact on food insecurity. A 2022 study from U.C. Davis found a median wage increase of about 6.6 percent correlated with about a 3 percent increase in calories purchased as well as an increase in healthier food purchases. The study, like others, also found that such increases help bridge widening wage gaps.

I encourage the governor to follow through on his campaign promise to accelerate Maryland’s minimum wage increase to $15 per hour, and incorporate sustained increases as inflation and the cost of living continue to rise. Doing so would make healthy food more accessible to more people across the state.

He can also take an active stance on urban agriculture. The Black Yield Institute advocates for food sovereignty in Baltimore and runs the Cherry Hill Community Garden on city-owned land in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore. In 2021, the city threatened to build affordable housing units on top of the farm, which would have effectively destroyed the neighborhood’s resource for food.

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In order to avoid pitting housing against urban farms, the governor should explore developing a robust and equitable process for providing low-income and minority communities an opportunity to lease and then purchase city-owned land for urban farms. Many of Baltimore’s Black residents have been working toward food sovereignty in the city by growing, eating, and sharing foods that are not only healthy but culturally appropriate. Providing communities an opportunity to purchase land from the city would only strengthen their important efforts.

On the morning of Governor Moore’s swearing-in ceremony, he and his family placed wreaths at the Annapolis City Dock, where enslaved Africans were once brought to America for free labor.

In Moore’s inauguration speech last week, he said, “We are blocks away from the Annapolis docks, where so many enslaved people arrived in this country against their will. And we are standing in front of a capitol building built by their hands. We have made uneven and unimaginable progress since then. It is history created by generations of people whose own history was lost, stolen, or never recorded. And it is a shared history—our history—made by people who over the last two centuries, regardless of the origin story of Maryland, fought to build a state, and a country, that works for everybody.”

As an African American man, a descendant of enslaved people, who grew up in Maryland and has always dreamt of seeing a state leader who looks like me, I was moved to see Moore pay his respects to the enslaved people who laid the foundation for the state and our country while highlighting a vision for all people to live a healthy and prosperous life.

It’s an exciting time to be working for a better, more equitable and inclusive food system in Maryland, and I hope Governor Moore lives up to this promising start.

Anthony Nicome is a student at Yale University and the Environmental Justice Fellow at the AAMC Center for Health Justice. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Department of Environmental Health & Engineering and previously served as a research assistant with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, U.B. Food Lab, and Baltimore Food Policy Initiative. Read more >

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