By Lorrie Baumann
The Salvation Army has opened a 27,000-square foot neighborhood grocery store in a Baltimore neighborhood that had been a food desert. The new store, opened on March 7, has the aesthetics of a specialty grocery, but it’s designed as a non-profit enterprise with ambitions to serve the community in ways that go beyond purveying food.
“It’s the first Salvation Army grocery store ever, since our founding in 1865,” said Salvation Army Major Gene A. Hogg, who oversees the project. Despite the lack of grocery retail experience, DMG Foods merges skill sets that the Salvation Army acquired through its long history of setting up canteens in disaster areas, operating rescue shelters and running thrift stores. Hogg added: “We have some retail experience.”
The DMG is an acronym for a Salvation Army motto: “Doing the Most Good.” The neighborhood in which the store operates is an unstable inner-city environment in which residents are subject to poverty, drug use and unemployment as well as food insecurity. According to the Maryland Food Bank, which partners with the Salvation Army to provide services at DMG Foods, more than 682,000 people in Maryland don’t get enough to eat, and one in nine Marylanders are food insecure. Baltimore City itself has a food insecurity rate of 23 percent and 25 percent of Baltimore residents live in a food desert according to St. Vincent de Paul Baltimore.
Nearly half of the Marylanders who don’t get enough to eat are working – they just don’t earn enough to feed and provide shelter for themselves and their children. Many of those Baltimore residents do much of their shopping in neighborhood bodegas and convenience stores where their food options are limited, simply because they don’t have transportation access to the nearest supermarket. The City of Baltimore defines a food desert as “an area where the distance to a supermarket or supermarket alternative is more than 1/4 mile, the median household income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, over 30 percent of households have no vehicle available, and the average Healthy Food Availability Index score for all food stores is low.” The Healthy Food Availability Index is based on a market basket of whole foods – milk, fruits, vegetables, meat, frozen foods, low-sodium foods, bread, beans, rice and breakfast cereal, and scores indicate the presence of these foods as well as food options judged healthy according to U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards.
DMG Foods is located in one of Baltimore’s urban food deserts. “Seventy-three percent of the people who live in the quarter-mile radius of the [DMG Foods] store have no transportation,” Hogg said. “Their options are to get on a bus or catch a ride with a private transportation service and go three or four miles out of their community to get to a full-service grocery.”
DMG Foods helps fill that gap in its neighborhood. An LEED Gold facility built in a repurposed warehouse that the Salvation Army had already owned, it’s a brightly lit, modern neighborhood market. The store’s mobile-friendly website allows shoppers to check in with their phones, see the daily specials and make a shopping list right on their phones. “The look is like any other grocery store with respect to lighting, signage and displays, aisle space and selection,” Hogg said. “People in this area did not have this available to them.”
The market offers a meat counter with butcher service, a Red Shield Club loyalty program, and a meal solutions program that offers daily menu plans demonstrated by a chef provided by the Maryland Food Bank. Shoppers get to taste samples offered by the chef, and then they can go over to an in-store kiosk where they can print out the day’s menu as well as daily coupons. This taste-testing is about more than making the store a fun shopping experience – research by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future documents that healthy food purchasing may go up when taste tests are offered for new or unfamiliar foods that customers might not purchase out of concerns about potential waste. Shoppers with limited resources tend not to spend their money on food that they’re not sure their families will be willing to eat.
Once a month, a local chef will be coming in to prepare a meal while servers pass around hors d’oeuvres and live music plays. “It’s like a cooking date night that you would take your spouse out to,” Hogg said. These social events have a higher purpose too: the Johns Hopkins research also demonstrated that social environments, including family and community relationships, greatly influence diabetes-related dietary change. Diabetes is just one of the diet-related diseases common in Baltimore’s inner city.
DMG Foods is open to anyone who cares to shop there, but the Red Shield Club loyalty program offers special benefits to card holders who self-identify as recipients of government aid programs. When they scan their card in at the store’s kiosk, the coupons they get might include a free 10-pound bag of chicken pieces or a package of light bulbs – there’s something free every day for those shoppers. Other than a number code on the back, their cards are identical to those used by other shoppers, so there’s no obvious way to tell whether a shopper picked up the 10-pound bag of chicken because they qualify for government assistance or because it was on a daily special, so taking the help doesn’t require anyone to pay a price in lost dignity.
Encouraging shoppers to come into the store every day, often on their way home from walking their children to or from the school that’s across the street from the store, is part of the Salvation Army’s social programming around the store. “We’re helping train people to use their money wisely,” Hogg said. “We’re trying to educate individuals that if you shop daily for your daily meals, you’re shopping fresher, and it’s less expensive. You can’t tell people what to eat. They’re going to eat what they’re conditioned to eat, what they’ve been eating. We think that having a constant presence, a constant tool for them to experience, we’ll eventually have an impact. … We’re trying to build a community centered around food. If we can create that community that’s connected, involved, participatory, we think we can make an impact. That remains to be seen, but we’re going to make a good effort at it.”
In addition to offering personal shoppers, provided by the City of Baltimore, cooking demonstrations and nutrition classes, DMG Foods also functions as a jobs training program. The store works with other Baltimore grocery stores to offer a workforce development program that trains entry-level grocers in the basics of store operations and customer service, which gives them the skills to be employable in other local stores. Hogg noted that the grocery business is exceptional for its ability to provide a career ladder, and he says that other local grocers have been eager to work with him on the workforce development program.
While the store isn’t intended to make any kind of profit, if there is any money on the table at the end of the day, those extra funds will go towards Catherine’s Cottage, a low-demand shelter for women who’ve been rescued from human trafficking that’s run by Hogg’s wife, Rebecca. “When you shop with us, you’re shopping for a cause,” Hogg said.
“We care about the community. We love the people in our community, and we want to help in this fashion. We see a need, and we’re trying to respond to the needs of our community,” he added. “I’m not thinking that we’re going to change the food industry at all. We’re trying to use that same sense of ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit to meet the needs of our community.”