Feeding Boston



When it comes to food initiatives, Boston claims to be one of America’s more progressive cities. Steve Holt surveys Boston’s food justice landscape and finds that while many Bostonians still lack access to healthy and local food and small farmers struggle to get by, the best bet for a more equitable local food system may lie in innovative organizations and city government—working together.

On the surface, John Duncan and Phil Jones’ lives seem as different as two men’s lives can be. Duncan is a 58-year-old security guard who lives in Dorchester. Jones, 64, owns a small farm with his wife in Chelmsford. Duncan is tall and soft-spoken, with a silky Caribbean accent from his native Grenada. Jones is squatty and outspoken. Black, white. Urban, rural. Immigrant, native.

But Duncan and Jones are more similar than one might think.

That’s because both men use the same phrase to describe their financial situation: “barely surviving.” For Jones and his wife, Deb, farming is their livelihood, but that livelihood has been nonexistent for at least the last three years. Duncan, who has lived with diabetes for the last decade, says his security detail makes him barely enough to cover expenses, including the apartment he shares with several others, and that he relies solely on public transportation.

Jones says that if he hadn’t recently learned about some exciting new methods for growing produce, he would have already left farming altogether. And despite making too little to afford “proper food,” Duncan says he makes too much to qualify for food stamps—he applied, and was turned down.

It’s a chicken-and-egg puzzle that spans the length of the Bay State: cities and towns trying to make sure their most vulnerable residents are fed, while small farmers struggle to find economically viable ways to sell their wares in densely populated areas. For many Bostonians—especially those of color, like Duncan—access to fresh, healthy, non-processed foods for a reasonable price is far from guaranteed. His neighborhood, Dorchester, has one grocery store for every 20,803 residents, according to data from the Boston Public Health Commission. Corner stores fill in the gap, but often poorly; many stock little or no produce, instead specializing in sugary sodas, snack foods high in salt and sugar, and aisles of processed ingredients.

And yet the need for real food in many of these neighborhoods has never been higher – both economically and health-wise. The number of Massachusetts’s residents receiving Supplemental Nutrition Aid Program (SNAP) benefits increased by 6% in the last year to over 850,000 recipients (more than 82,000 of those are in Boston). Project Bread reported in 2010 that 11% of Massachusetts families had reduced the quality and quantity of their diet because of financial constraints—the highest rate of food insecurity in the Commonwealth since 1995.

If you are black, like Duncan, you are almost twice as likely to be a diabetic, according to data from the Boston Public Health Commission. And 24% of children in Boston are considered obese, and that number has skyrocketed in recent years among blacks and Hispanics.

The pieces are not difficult to put together: Food inequity in many of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods has created a health crisis that threatens to get worse before it improves. And yet, how can Boston feed its most vulnerable citizens while taking care of that dying breed, the small farmer?

The good news is that, in many ways, Boston is making great strides in answering this question. Increasingly, it is doing so as a result of innovative and compassionate Bostonians, thriving public-private partnerships, and thinking that goes beyond simply putting up with a controlling and oppressive industrial food system.

Farmers Markets

Gus Schumacher recalls the first time he realized some of his neighbors needed financial assistance to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.

As a young man, Schumacher, a native of Jamaica Plain, would sell fresh produce from his father’s Lexington farm to some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. While selling in Dorchester, Schumacher says a box of pears fell off the back of the truck into the street. As he used a shovel to try to pick the strewn pears out of the road, he watched in bewilderment as a young woman got down on her hands and knees and began picking the fruit out of the gutter. The woman’s husband had recently left her and her two children, Schumacher would find out, leaving her on food stamps and yet destitute enough to pull fruit out of the street. “I said, ‘Whoa! What’s this about?’”

Years later, after he became commissioner of agricultural resources for the Commonwealth, this woman became Schumacher’s inspiration in starting, along with then-City Councilor Thomas M. Menino, the city’s first program that provided coupons to low-income mothers and the elderly to use at farmers markets. This program, which began at the Roslindale Farmers Market in 1986, was replicated by several other states and eventually implemented at the federal level. In this way, Boston was a pioneer city in giving all its residents access to farmers market produce.

Today, low-income Bostonians have more options than ever for accessing fresh food at their local farmers markets, at affordable prices. Nineteen of Boston’s 28 markets accept federal SNAP coupons (formerly food stamps), the value of which can be doubled at many markets through a program funded by Wholesome Wave. (Schumacher is a co-founder of Wholesome Wave and serves as its executive vice president) And Boston Bounty Bucks, which was started in 2008 by The Food Project and transferred in 2011 to the Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness, matches SNAP purchases at farmers markets up to $10 per day. Recipients of Women, Infants and Children (WIC) vouchers can also now receive coupons to use at farmers markets.

The programs have grown quickly. Last year, Boston residents spent a combined $125,000 at the city’s farmers markets using SNAP and Boston Bounty Bucks coupons. And of the dollars being spent through the Boston Bounty Bucks program, researchers have found that 90% are being spent on fresh produce. There is also now a full-time farmers markets coordinator—Jen Obadia of the Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness—who oversees and standardizes the use of the benefits at the farmers markets. On the surface, it would appear that these programs, along with the addition of many new seasonal and year-round farmers markets, would by themselves be a panacea in the food justice debate.

But this “if we build it, they will come” approach reaches some—certainly not all—and perhaps only those who might have been inclined to seek out healthy food anyway, says Dr. Hugh Joseph, research associate at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Joseph, who is also the founder of the New Entry Sustainable Farming program, says that access to affordable fresh and healthy food means little when the demand is not there to begin with. He points to the abundance of fruits and vegetables available in Chinatown, a historically poor neighborhood. “There’s more fruits and vegetables per square inch in Chinatown than anywhere in the whole city,” Joseph asserts. “That has more to do with what people want to buy, and they’ll sell it because they’re buying it. If the basic demand isn’t there, affordability isn’t going to solve that problem, nor is accessibility.”

The Farm

It goes without saying, but for urban farmers markets to work, they must work for farmers. Phil Jones of Jones Farm in Chelmsford says that for him, the economics of driving into the city no longer makes sense, despite his personal desire to strengthen food access there. After two years selling at the East Boston Farmers Market, Jones—who says he hasn’t made a living farming the last three years—did not re-apply for a booth there this year.

“We know that if we’re not doing $1,000 in sales, it’s not worth going, especially driving to Boston today, with the cost of fuel,” he says.

Many weeks selling in East Boston, Jones says he wouldn’t come close to that number. Part of the problem, he says, was the time it took to process coupons from the assistance programs after coming home from the market. “For us, it’s more work, more work, more work,” he says of the paperwork. “I guess it’s OK for people who are doing huge amounts. But for us, we come home and we spend two days stamping coupons from each farmers market.”

Add to that the cost of labor (two employees for the East Boston market) and a clientele that was unfamiliar with many of the products he was selling, and Jones says it amounted to a fruitless venture.

Increasingly, farmers markets are being viewed as only part of the solution—especially in the pursuit of solutions that work for both farmers and consumers. “We’re working to find alternative strategies to make farmers markets more viable,” says Jen Obadia.

One strategy that has seen rapid success is the Farm to Family program, run out of Dorchester’s Bowdoin Street Health Center in partnership with The Food Project. This effort provides CSA shares to its neighbors at a reduced rate. The program works because CSA shareholders in the Longwood Medical Area volunteer to pay $5 more per box to offset the subsidized shares in Dorchester. Between 2010 and 2011, the program went from $1,900 in sales to over $13,000—a nearly 600% increase. “That’s our success story,” says Maura Schorr Beaufait, food access coordinator at the health center. “In terms of value, it works out for farmers.”

The Corner Store

The newest front in the battle for greater food access in Boston is perhaps a bit surprising, because not too long ago it was viewed as the enemy of food justice efforts: the corner store.

On a cloudy Thursday morning, I find myself standing in front of a corner store on Bowdoin Street in Dorchester, surrounded by very nice people I’d never met. Once we are all in the door, we crowd in close around Beaufait, who is standing between a case of fruit and boxes of root vegetables.

“We’re going to learn together how to make the most out of your food budget and improve your health, little by little,” she tells us.

We’re in America’s Food Basket, a food store that falls somewhere between a corner store and a small grocery store in size. Today, Beaufait, is our healthy food shopping guide. Between April and May, Beaufait is doing eight of these tours — called “Shopping Matters”—which give Dorchester residents tips on how to buy healthy, non-processed foods in corner stores, on a shoestring. This particular morning, Beaufait’s group is comprised of four others besides myself, all middle-aged or older, who share a similar condition: They have diabetes. This crash course in making healthy choices in the corner store is as much a part of their treatment as regular insulin shots.

Beaufait takes us down each aisle, showing the group how to read a food label, what to look for in fresh produce, meats and fish and highlighting common pitfalls shoppers make, such as choosing white rice over brown rice or cereals that are high in sugar. At the end of tour, she gives each attendee a $5 coupon to spend in the store that day. One woman places a bottle of ketchup in front of the cashier. Beaufait steps in quickly and says, “I can’t have you use your coupon for that.”

The need for such a tour highlights a main cause of Boston’s food access and health disparities: the lack of basic nutrition information low-income residents have when limited largely to corner stores for their food shopping. It becomes increasingly difficult for shoppers on a tight budget when the cheapest foods are often the ones with the most sugar, highest sodium and least nutritional value.

And yet, in the absence of supermarkets or other food sources, corner stores become the default for many in Boston. That reality explains, in essence, the efforts currently under way to improve the selection of healthy foods at corner stores around Boston. Through the Healthy on the Block initiative, the City of Boston works with shop owners in East Boston and Mattapan toward meeting criteria for stocking healthier foods. Beaufait has launched a similar program in the Bowdoin-Geneva section of Dorchester, where she is asking shop owners to carry 33 healthy food items. Out of 13 shops in the area, Beaufait says that five have expressed interest in participating in the program, and four have acted on that interest.

For John Duncan, who asked questions throughout the Shopping Matters tour that morning, the availability of better food options in his neighborhood shops can’t come soon enough. For someone living with diabetes, the alternative is grim.

“As a person, I sometimes don’t have money or resources to get proper food,” he says. “The tour gives you the opportunity to shop in a more significant way, save money and buy right.”

The School

While working with adults is important and needed, food activists recognize that if we are to see long-term improvements in health and economic development, the best bet is our children. That’s why for many, schools have become ground zero for the food revolution that is taking place.

Consider these numbers: The majority of students who attend school in Boston come from low-income families, and 76% of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. By some estimates, meals eaten at school will account for as much as half of a student’s daily nutrients and calories. With almost 44% of students in Boston categorized as either overweight or obese, it’s easy to see why some experts say schools—both in nutrition education and school lunch reform—deserve our full attention. Traditionally, school districts have treated the food budget like the toilet paper budget: “It’s sort of the lowest bidder,” says Hugh Joseph of Tufts.

The Boston Public Schools, it appears, has been trying to turn that around. Last fall, the district brought on a new, healthier food service provider to feed the 86 city schools that lack full-service kitchens. Long Island–based Whitsons Culinary Group is still serving primarily frozen meals, but its ingredients are fresher and healthier than its predecessor’s, with more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And according to the city, 41% of the food Whitsons is serving is produced in Massachusetts or New York. Boston now employs the state’s only full-time farm-to-school coordinator, Kim Szeto, who initiated “Local Lunch Thursdays” in 44 cafeterias in the city.

All this is a huge step forward for a school district, of course, that drew negative attention after it was discovered early last year that certain foods being served in the schools had remained frozen up to a year past their expiration date. Edith Murnane, director of food initiatives for the City of Boston, says the improvements to school food over the last year are one of her proudest accomplishments yet. “We are in the midst of redefining, rethinking, recreating a palate for Boston’s youngest students,” Murnane says. “They get to see what should be in food. When chili is on the menu they should see things like onions and tomatoes and beans. That is remarkable work.”

But schools must go beyond simply not harming their students with the food they’re serving. Schools, especially in neighborhoods where proper nutrition education is scarce, may be the only place some children learn about proper nutrition, connect regularly with the farmers and land where their food is grown and study the realities of the industrial food system. Field trips to the farm, like the one I took in May with my son’s preschool class, are crucial. But these days, that education is too often lacking, replaced instead by testing or cut out of curricula because of budget constraints. While the district may find it difficult to create a budgetary line item for nutrition classes, Joseph says it is crucial that schools include creative, experiential nutrition programs and “not just salad bars at lunch.”

A Different Model

In the shadow of a pervasive and influential industrial food system, perhaps we ought to be thinking much more creatively. Maybe the best hope for greater food justice is for local communities to take back control of various aspects of their food systems. To begin to model what it might look like to operate outside the food establishment.

The sustainable future most likely calls for more of us to grow our own food, either individually, in community gardens, or on large urban parcels. Presently, Boston produces surprisingly little of its own food, leaving us at the mercy of food sources far away. In fact, if transportation routes in and out of the city were cut off, the Rodale Institute estimates that the average East Coast city would run out of food in less than two days. The Food Project has become a national model for its work turning Boston into a food-producing city. The organization brings together youth from both Boston and the suburbs to farm several acres of land in the Dudley neighborhood of Roxbury (in addition to its 31-acre farm in Lincoln). And through its Build-a-Garden program, The Food Project has built over 600 raised-bed gardens in Boston.

Even the City of Boston would like to see more food being produced within its city limits. The Mayor’s Food Council has initiated a three-phase plan to rezone parts of the city for agricultural use and put a call out to residents interested in farming city land—all with the ultimate goal of increasing access to healthy and affordable food in underserved communities. A time may be coming when urban agriculture moves from being a neat idea to a necessity.

“Food’s going to get more and more expensive in this country,” says Jess Liborio, urban grower at The Food Project, “and we’ll have to be more creative in how to produce enough and share it equitably.”

Once the food is produced, where might the urban communities of the sustainable future sell it? For Jenny Silverman, a longtime Dorchester resident, the answer is the cooperative model, which leverages the “buy-in” of many members to access high-quality foods for a neighborhood. Silverman and a number of partners are in the process of starting the Dorchester Food Co-Op (dotcommcoop.wordpress.com). She and her neighbors have started a winter farmers market, which she says struggled because the prices were too expensive for many residents without a subsidy.

This summer, she’ll launch a community-supported café, which will be a series of weekly dinners where community members can come together around healthy, local meals and learn how to prepare them from cooking demonstrations. From these gatherings, Silverman hopes to build interest in opening a co-op store that provides access to healthy, affordable food; a gathering space for neighbors to come together; and economic development for the community. “We all spend a lot of money on food, mostly outside of Dorchester,” says Silverman, who is looking to open the co-op store by late 2014. “Most of us would like to spend that here.”

Ultimately, however, our national lawmakers need to transform our food system. The abundance of cheap, processed foods in vulnerable communities is a direct result of national policies that favor an industrialized food production over real food and small farmers. But neither party seems motivated to drastically alter national agriculture and food policy, even though this is the year Congress can make changes to the Farm Bill. Of the Farm Bill, which Congress began debating in April, Hugh Joseph of Tufts says that despite efforts to divert more attention toward real food production, he has modest expectations for change. “If we’re lucky, we’ll hold on to what we can,” he says.

Until the entire system is altered at the federal level, the hope for food justice in Boston exists in the collective effort of nonprofits, foundations and public entities. The city can start by removing barriers to the effort—like the law banning cooking demonstrations at farmers markets. It can continue cleaning up vacant properties around the city—especially those which it owns—and repurposing them for urban agriculture. Schools will need to serve even more quality meals to our children, but also teach them about health and nutrition. Community organizations and neighborhood health centers can continue the important work of educating Bostonians not only on where to find the best produce, but ways in which they can resist the influence of the industrial food machine.

There are no easy answers, no silver bullets. Food justice for all—farmers, children, the poor, the elderly—requires many approaches. At times, it will feel like we’re throwing ideas at the wall, hoping a few will stick. One thing is for certain: Lasting change will require a different way of looking at food—as individuals, as communities and as a nation.

Steve Holt, a regular contributor to Edible Boston, was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011 for his story about healthy burger joints. Follow him on Twitter @thebostonwriter. He lives in East Boston.