By Kathleen Thrane
Food insecurity is on the rise in Boston, but the answer to this ongoing problem may be in the hands of local farmers.
About 1 million people are food insecure in Boston, according to an article released by WBUR. Since 2018, one in five children in Massachusetts are food insecure, according to statistics from Feeding America.
The pandemic is to blame for rising food access problems in the city, according to WBUR. Food insecurity in Boston is affecting more families than ever due to the pandemic and its aftermath.
The Center for Disease Control defines a food desert as a place with limited access to whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that are included in a healthy diet. In Boston, there are two food deserts.
One is in West Roxbury and one is in East Boston, according to Inner City Capital Connections.
“About 30% of the population in the US is food insecure, and 41% housing insecure,” Professor Marygold Walsh-Dilley, an assistant professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the Honors College at the University of New Mexico said. “But quite honestly, these numbers are not surprising at all.”
There’s nearly a store on every corner, but here’s the catch: small corner stores and bodegas do not count as grocery stores. They don’t offer a wide variety of fresh produce and meat, and the prices are often higher than grocery stores.
There are 21 farmers’ markets throughout Boston, according to the City of Boston’s website. However, a lot of locations are not located in convenient locations for those who need access to the markets the most.
“With food insecurity, we had a lot of issues during the last year because of the pandemic,” said Lina Tramelli, the East Boston liaison.
Tramelli represents East Boston and communicates the neighborhood’s concerns with the Mayor of Boston.
Reporting those issues were Tramelli’s responsibility, and people were concerned about food access after losing jobs and steady incomes. She set up food sites with fresh produce because the farmers markets were on hold because of the pandemic.
“We were notifying people, and everyone was bringing groceries, vegetables and things like that,” she said.
The good news is that as the pandemic slowed down, so did the need for extra groceries. “We have like, like so many different cultures and people with different incomes. As I tell you, at the beginning of the pandemic, many people were in need and stopped by the food sites, but now we don’t have as much as before,” she said.
When it comes to farmers’ market locations, many experts and residents are torn.
“You start your day at 5 am and are harvesting and bringing beautiful food to the market. Then people don’t show up because they don’t actually have enough money to buy that kind of food. It’s something that we have really struggled with,” said Danielle Perry, the lead farmer at The Food Project. “I think you probably talked to folks who will say, yeah, we need more markets. And the reality is, over the years, I’ve just seen so many small markets open up and then there aren’t enough customers.”
There is a need for more locations for accessibility, most people agree, however; there is a concern that more locations means less business at each location.
Tramelli said she believes the one farmers market in East Boston is situated in an accessible location.
“I feel like the area with the farmers market is located in a good spot. But if we think about having another one, it has to be farther from Boston because people farther out than East Boston don’t have access to these markets,” Tramelli said.
Taylor Yi, a mid-20’s professional, lives in Dorchester and frequents the Ashmont Farmers market every week. She chooses to get her produce at the market instead of the grocery store because she thinks it’s cheaper, and she likes to support small businesses and farmers when she can.
“I like the sense of community the market gives me. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t go to the farmers’ market here. It’s closer for me to come here once a week than to go to the nearest Star Market that’s about a mile away from where I live,” Yi said.
The nearest Star Market in Dorchester is a little over a mile from the Ashmont Farmers Market. That’s a 20-minute walk or more just to get to the store, and it’s located closer to Milton Hill than it is to Dorchester’s center. That becomes a 40 minute commute to the store. For many people, they cannot spend almost an hour on their grocery commute.
“I work from 8 in the morning to 7 or 8 at night most days of the week,” Yi said. “I don’t want to spend my time off walking to the grocery store.”
Research shows that farmers’ markets can alleviate some of the food insecurity in neighborhoods like Roxbury and Dorchester. A recent study in Hawaii examined the relationship between food deserts and farmers’ markets.
The study found that farmers’ markets, when strategically placed, can impact those surrounding neighborhoods, but only if they accept SNAP and HIP benefits. In Boston, almost every market does accept SNAP and HIP. This year, the state began offering $2.50 coupons at farmers’ markets for people who are not eligible for SNAP benefits starting July 1.
“I think that there continues to be a need for more farmers markets,” said Catalina Prada Valderrama, a spokeswoman for the Department of Food Access in Boston. Partially, this is because the pandemic has affected food access.
“The pandemic just heightened food insecurity in the city and the state. Definitely, we’ve seen much more food insecurity,” she said. “When people started to be homebound and lost their jobs, it was overwhelming. The amount of SNAP recipients has gone up.”
Valderrama said there are plans for offering more farmers’ markets throughout Boston, and the plan is to strategically place the markets in neighborhoods that are most affected by food insecurity. She is hoping the summer markets can reach more people once the plan is finalized and implemented.
“The four the five neighborhoods that we are targeting are East Boston Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury,” she said. “We know that there’s a huge need in those five neighborhoods.”
Valderrama said that more markets throughout all of Boston, including areas that also have a running market.
“There’s a new Chinatown farmers market that’s coming up this year,” Prada said.
Although the market is located in the same place as another Farmers’ Market that runs on different days of the week, the new market attracts a different audience.
“This farmers market just attracts different vendors and attracts different populations. It’s much more culturally appropriate to the Chinese population. And they’re trying to source vendors that offer those products. So I think there’s still room for more farmers markets,” she said.