Grocery Stores See Low-Income Areas as Risky Investments

By Dahlia Snaiderman


More than 40,000 people live in East Boston. They all have one supermarket to shop in.

The grocery shopping landscape in East Boston is bleak. Some experts, including Monica Leitner-Laserna, a teacher and food activist, refer to it as a food desert. Technically, only certain areas of East Boston qualify as food deserts, defined as areas where more than 33 percent of the census tract population lives more than a mile away from a grocery store, according to the USDA.

The map below, from the Boston planning and development agency, shows the census tracts of East Boston. The only major grocery store in the neighborhood is in census tract 503.

Map from the Boston Planning Development Agency – Census Tract Map 2010

This means that districts 510, 511, and 512 are all food deserts. The Eastie residents who live there are looking at up to 25-minute walks to get to the Shaw’s, and that’s without groceries weighing them down on the way back. This is a burden faced by many East Boston residents.

It’s even harder for those with physical disabilities, many of whom live in care homes near Maverick Square.

The MBTA’s blue line runs through East Boston, and seven buses service the area. Yet bringing groceries home on foot or on the bus can be taxing even if shopping only for one person. If one person is shopping to feed a whole family, it’s nearly impossible.

Food deserts are almost always low-income areas, so the underserved populations of those areas bear the brunt of the health issues that come from food insecurity. If a person has a choice between taking an hour-long public transit route to a good grocery store, or buying some essentials at a bodega to feed their family right away, the choice is unfortunately often the latter. The health outcomes of the neighborhood’s population is greatly affected by this, and has spurned the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center to launch many different initiatives to increase access to fresh produce when all that’s usually in walking distance is a bodega.

In the map below, you can find 18 of the neighborhood’s bodegas marked in red, and the lone supermarket, Shaw’s, in green.  There’s a huge, widely beloved Market Basket in nearby Chelsea, but if you don’t have a car to get there, you’re out of luck.

The bodegas that dot the neighborhood’s thoroughfares are basically convenience stores. They have extensive snack options, dry ingredients, canned goods, and frozen foods, as well as many ingredients needed to cook cuisines from all over the world. As useful as they can be as a big source of comfort to immigrants who seek ingredients, snacks, and spices from back home, they generally only have one small refrigerated space containing wilted produce. They’re also not cheap.

Shaw’s, East Boston’s only supermarket, is a major grocery store, operated by the parent corporation that owns both Shaw’s and Stop ‘n’ Shop. It has a large produce section, but frozen foods and dry goods still make up the majority of what’s available to purchase.

The produce at Shaw’s is also not particularly cheap. Many neighborhood residents complain that the Shaw’s is very expensive, including Dora Martinez, a Jeffries Point resident. She chooses to buy her produce at mobile market Fresh Truck instead. “At Shaw’s, two, three bags, and I’ve already hit $80,” she complained, in Spanish, outside of the Fresh Truck parked at Maverick Station.

Shaw’s upper management refused to comment for this story as media representative Teresa Edington cited a policy against speaking with students.  However,  an assistant manager at the East Boston location, who identified himself only as Paul, was able to answer a few brief questions about the common perception of Shaw’s as exorbitantly expensive.

“We were high-priced for a few years because we were struggling, but it’s gotten better now,” he said. “We’re owned by a major corporation now, so we’re as competitive as anybody… lower-income people are coming back.”

On what it’s like to be the sole grocery store in a neighborhood of 40,000 people? “It’s great,” he said.

Chris Flynn is the president of the Massachusetts Food Association, a trade association for the state’s supermarket and grocery industry. He said a lot of why East Boston has so few grocery stores is due to the logistics of its location. “It’s close to the airport, and it’s close to the waterfront, so you’re cutting off potential resources to bring folks in,” he explained.

The neighborhood is on a peninsula across the water from mainland Boston. Its location renders it less accessible to inventory deliveries, potential shoppers, and a wide pool of employees, Flynn said.

“The supermarket and grocery industry is a low margin business,” he added. “They make a penny to a penny and a half on the dollar.” This means that every time a location is scouted for a store, it has to meet exacting standards of profit potential.

“They do a geographical analysis of what would be the opportunity for them to succeed,” he explained.  “They will look at other things that may impact their ability to operate in a successful manner, including, you know, whether it be safety concerns or concerns about the ability to be able to generate enough income in that area in order to make the store fly.”

“You have to put a lot of money out front to get inventory. And then you also have to have the ability to attract a workforce,” said Flynn.

Flynn’s perspective is a widely-held one; opening grocery stores in low-income areas is seen as a high-risk investment. Government programs have had to incentivize corporations into doing it at all, explains an Associated Press report. Lower-income, higher-crime areas can cost a chain more in insurance and security costs, and this chips away at an already low profit margin.

There are exceptions to this belief, including a case in Philadelphia where a business owner came to low-income communities to thoroughly understand their needs before expanding into the area. He now successfully operates seven stores in low-income neighborhoods, supporting these communities and increasing their access to healthy food.

Flynn mentioned that the Massachusetts Food Trust has been running programs to help fund potential grocery stores in low-income areas. The trust’s website explains how they intend to help: “The Massachusetts Food Trust Program will increase healthy food access and spur economic development by providing loans, grants, and technical assistance to support new and expanded healthy food retailers and local food enterprises in low- and moderate-income communities across the Commonwealth.”

So far, though, the Massachusetts Food Trust has been focused on other Massachusetts cities with greater scarcity of grocery stores, like Lynn, Taunton, and Chicopee. Within Boston, the program has helped expand the Tropical Foods store in Dorchester.

The fact that East Boston isn’t front-of-mind when it comes to food insecurity, despite its one grocery store for 40,000 people, contributes to a common feeling in the neighborhood: “It feels a little bit like the neighborhood that gets left behind,” said Sandra Aleman-Nijjar, the director of the always-full East Boston Community Soup Kitchen.

“The homeless and addict population is growing every year,” said Aleman-Nijjar, “and some people have trouble getting across the tunnel to get help.”

About Dahlia Snaiderman 4 Articles
Dahlia Snaiderman is a multimedia journalist and podcaster originally from Toronto, Canada. She's currently an intern at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio, and at Boston Free Radio. She loves everything about food and cooking, and used to work in restaurant kitchens before deciding that her other favorite thing- talking- could make for a better career. She thinks in Spanglish.