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An oasis in a food desert

Michele and Erich March, part-owners of the March Funeral Homes in Baltimore, are taking a 180-degree turn to ready a new business venture in East Baltimore: a grocery store called Apples and Oranges.

Michelle and Erick March, Principals of Apples and Oranges

The market is set to open March 9 in a so-called food desert at North Avenue and Broadway, across the street from a McDonald’s and rows of vacant, blighted houses and shuttered businesses. A food desert is described as a low-income urban location with slim to no exposure to fresh foods.

It will offer fresh fruits, veggies, meats and fish, and an array of freshly prepared, healthy foods made daily by a chef who said he knows what it is like to grow up in a community where sodas, French fries, lake trout sandwiches and fried chicken boxes have ruled for years.

“I see more than most people what the real consequences are for people without access to fresh foods,” says Erich March, 61, a local mortician for decades. “People ought to die when they are supposed to and not prematurely because of bad food choices.”

After being rejected by three large banks for financing, the couple said they borrowed $1.3 million in small-business loans that resulted in liens being placed on their city home and a separate rental property to finance the 5,600-square-foot grocery. They are leasing the space from Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries, which owns the property that also holds a children’s dental clinic and a grief counseling center.

“This is what the community has been consistently asking for,” said Michele Speaks-March. “I have a whole lot of hope for this. If you don’t have a good nutrition for kids, your start out at a disadvantage that affects all of our lives.”

The grocery store is part of a growing trend to revamp inner-city communities around new businesses such as a market, said Dana Johnson, a vice president for The Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that has targeted $51 million toward Baltimore neighborhoods. That includes a loan to the Marches for Apples and Oranges, she said.

“We have a pretty strong track record in helping to move projects forward to provide healthy food in underserved communities,” Johnson said, referring to TRF projects in cities like Newark and Philadelphia. “You can’t have a healthy and successful community without healthy food.”

Holly Freishtat, the food policy director for Baltimore, based in the Department of Planning, said the opening of Apples and Oranges is an example of a push to introduce new food choices locally. The city’s effort, though, has limited funding.

“We are working on a food desert retail strategy,” Freishtat said. “Over the next six months, we hope to define sites and move stores in within one to two years. Retail does not move fast.”

Speaks-March showed off the store last week as workers prepared shelving to display what soon will be a variety of fresh, frozen and canned foods with a large deli and prepared foods counter, a rotisserie chicken cooker and a coffee bar. Bright purple and orange-colored walls offer a festive look.

“We believe that we don’t need 20 different kinds of ketchup,” she said, noting the smaller store and its inventory. “If we do our jobs right and have a conversation with the community, we want to introduce lots of options with good quality foods, vegetables and fruit.”

A small space that will offer seating for about 25 will be used for seminars on nutrition and community meetings. A working kitchen, visible to shoppers, will turn out daily specials like baked chicken and rice, salads and green vegetables. And the organic Real Food Farm at nearby Clifton Park will use the store as a drop-off for shares during summer and fall months.

“I’m going to do my best to open their eyes to new things,” said Robert Traylor, the kitchen manager and chef who was trained by five-star chef Galen Sampson at the Dogwood Restaurant in Hampden. “Once their eyes are open to the likes of Russian kale and different colors of leaf lettuces, they will love it.”

Carl Stokes, who represents the City Council’s 12th District, where Apples and Oranges is located, predicted the grocery will be well-received.

“In that neighborhood, there are not a lot of options,” Stokes said. “So this store not only is going to be a great addition to the community, but pushes forward healthy choices as well as a place for people to gather.”

Erich March said TRF is the major lender in the grocery venture and the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s nonprofit development arm, also provided a loan. Two attorneys from Ballard Spahr LLC, Danielle E. Howarth and Lila Shapiro-Cyr, donated pro bono hours to help the couple with its paperwork.

“We literally had to sign over and pledge our private home and $120,000 of our own equity for the store,” Erich said. “We didn’t have any choice. They required it. TRF, BDC (and another lender) all have liens on our houses. “Three major banks turned us down and they were very upfront. They told us they were no longer interested in financing smaller businesses.”

Despite the rocky start, the grocery has been creating new energy in the community for the past month.

Dozens have knocked on the front door seeking jobs, Speaks-March said. Others have stopped by to ask about the hours and when the store will officially open.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose 14th District sits nearby, said her constituents have been asking about the new store and have pledged to patronize it.

“I know how hard it was for Michele and her husband to pull together this market in this location, but the community understands and knows and appreciates it,” she said. “They will be there.”

So far about 15 employees have been hired out of a total of 20 new full and part-time jobs, Speaks-March said.

“The word is out there,” she said. “We want to do something the community can be proud of.”