Field Notes

‘Food Desert’ Gets a Name Change in Baltimore
After Community Feedback

In a new report, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future (CLF) detail the rationale behind replacing the term “food desert” with “healthy food priority areas.” The report, which was written in collaboration with the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, also measures the state of healthful food availability in stores across Baltimore City, using a healthy food availability index (HFAI) tool that can serve as a valuable model for assessing community food environments across the United States.

For some, the term “food desert” stirs up negative connotations, and it implies that low healthful food access is a naturally occurring phenomenon, rather than the result of underlying structural inequities. For others, the term connotes a pejorative status when some of these areas are home to vibrant communities with passionate and resilient residents and programs on the ground. Living in a “healthy food priority area” doesn’t necessarily mean people can’t access healthful food at all, as many people travel to shop for food, but it does indicate they may face more barriers—they may travel farther to reach healthful food outlets or may not have the economic means to afford healthful food options.

A healthy food priority area is defined by the same criteria used to define a food desert: an area where the average HFAI score for all food stores is low (0 to 9.5), the median household income is at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, more than 30% of households have no vehicle available, and the distance to a supermarket is more than one-fourth of a mile. Researchers at the CLF—an academic center based within the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering—created the HFAI to measure and assess healthful foods in stores. The HFAI awards points to stores based on the presence of a market basket of staple food items, as well as the availability of healthful options, including lean protein, whole wheat grains, low-fat dairy, and produce. A food store with a low score will not carry many of the food items assessed.

Researchers found that in Baltimore, about 23.5% of residents live in healthy food priority areas, children are the most likely of any age group to live in a priority area (28%), and black residents are the most likely of any racial or ethnic group to live in a priority area (31.5%). Since 2015, about 5,000 fewer residents live in healthy food priority areas, as a result of a new supermarket opening. The report also offers an updated and more comprehensive description of other elements of the food environment, including nutrition assistance programs and urban agriculture, to highlight additional points of access to healthful food.

“Developing this food environment report is an important step toward understanding Baltimore City’s healthy food access challenges,” says Caitlin Misiaszek, MPH, program officer within the CLF’s Food Communities and Public Health program and a report coauthor. “But to address challenges and influence the food environment across any city, it’s critical to recognize the impact of systemic issues. Long-term solutions must be integrated across systems and sectors with a broad base of policies and programmatic activities to create lasting change and promote health and equity for all residents.”

Misiaszek and colleagues see the report’s collection of maps as an important tool to support policy change in Baltimore, and one that other cities also can develop to analyze food access. They can be created as baseline measures and updated to reflect progress in achieving more equitable access to healthful food.

— Source: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health


Hull-Free Barley Offers High Yields and Better Nutrition

Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) are giving an ancient grain a new life: This barley is naked, but not in an indecent way.

Most barley grains are covered rather than naked. Covered varieties have a hull—or outer layer—firmly attached to the grain. The hull on Buck—as in “Buck-naked”—doesn’t hang on to the grain. Instead, the hulls fall off during harvest.

“Even barley geneticists try to have a sense of humor,” says Patrick Hayes, PhD, crop scientist. Hayes is part of the OSU Barley Project, a team of barley enthusiasts and breeders.

Food manufacturers using covered barley grind off the unpalatable hull to produce pearled barley. But pearling removes part of the nutrient-rich bran, and pearled barley isn’t considered a whole grain. Naked barley doesn’t require pearling, allowing it to hold onto the bran and whole grain status.

Barley grain is tasty and nutritional. Hayes says Buck has an optimum level of beta-glucan, a soluble dietary fiber that lowers cholesterol and aids digestion. Whole grain baked goods, porridges, grits, and cereals all can be made from barley. “I started my day today, as I do every day, with a bowl of barley flakes,” Hayes says. “We aren’t trying to make barley a fad diet, but we’re telling people, ‘Hey, here’s a modern version of an ancient grain, and it’s good for you!’”

Naked barley has been around for 10,000 years, the result of a natural mutation that was selected at the dawn of agriculture. But there weren’t naked varieties adapted to the Pacific Northwest. That’s where Buck comes in. It’s the first fall-planted naked barley variety to be bred specifically for the region. Buck may have broader adaptation: It has done well in field trials in the Upper Midwest, even surviving some Minnesota winters.

The research team behind Buck crossed two barley varieties together—one from Oregon and one from Virginia. The Oregon parent contributed desirable traits such as disease resistance, while the Virginian contributed the naked factor. The combined traits enable Buck to achieve high yields and flourish with less fertilizer and water than its more familiar naked cousin, wheat. Best of all, Buck is a multiuse barley. It can be used for human food, animal feed, and beer.

Buck is at the forefront because it has a modest beta-glucan level that meets food, feed, and brewing needs. If beta-glucan is too high, things get complicated for animal nutrition and brewers. Naked barleys can produce more beer per unit of malt used, which means breweries will get more bang for their … Buck.

Worldwide, most barley is used for animal feed. However, Hayes says, “Barley exists as a significant crop today because of its unique advantages for brewing.”

Naked varieties may bring new flavors and processing advantages to brewing. In typical brewing, the hulls are used to make the initial malting process easier and act as filters. Without hulls, this can be addressed in other ways. The most sophisticated is a technology called mash filtration that reduces water use and carbon footprint. Brewers without mash filters can still use naked barley, either as part of their malt blend or by using added rice hulls.

The OSU research team is collaborating with industry and academic colleagues to develop beer recipes based on Buck. The first Buck beer was brewed by Great Western Malting of Vancouver, Washington. Coming on tap soon is an experimental Buck malt beer brewed by Breakside Brewing in Portland, Oregon.

“It’s so satisfying to have a beer made from the barley you’ve helped develop—and to eat it too!” Hayes says.

— Source: Crop Science Society of America