The Challenges to Healthy Eating for Low-Income Bostonians

Published on
July 23, 2011

As a National Health Journalism fellow, I will be examining the obstacles to healthy eating for low-income black families in Boston. Specifically, I will focus on the obstacles of food pricing, food access, and the "business of unhealthiness," the web of market incentives that drive individuals towards unhealthy food choices. In addition, I will also examine the creative solutions local activists devise to overcome these barriers to a nutritious diet.

The final product of this project will be a three-part series for the Bay State Banner, a weekly African American newspaper in Boston: food pricing, food access, and the business of unhealthiness. Stories of local activism will be woven into each, and this series will be supplemented with photographs.

Food Pricing: This entire project grew out of a woman's letter to the Banner early last year. She was outraged to find that milk prices had skyrocketed in her Roxbury neighborhood. I responded with my own survey of milk prices and found that she was right-a gallon of milk in Roxbury, a black-majority neighborhood where the median family income is $27,000, is almost a dollar more expensive than in Symphony Hall, a neighborhood with a median family income of $60,000. But this price inflation was not limited to this woman's neighborhood grocery store-I found a similar price discrepancy between other low- and high-income neighborhoods throughout Boston. Urban food prices are prohibitive to a nutritious diet, a 2008 report by the Boston Medical Center revealed: the average monthly cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, the USDA's national standard for a "nutritious diet at a minimal cost," is $210 higher than the maximum monthly food stamp allowance in Boston. With over 70,000 food stamp recipients in Boston-and over 55 percent of these from black neighborhoods-high food prices present a significant barrier to Bostonians' health.

Food Access: Anecdotal evidence reveals that fresh fruits and vegetables are relatively unavailable in Boston's three black neighborhoods, Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. Large grocery stores selling quality produce are few, and poor infrastructure prevents local farmers from distributing there. No current data on Boston food access is available, but anecdotes are consistent with national trends. More than 23 million Americans live in low-income neighborhoods more than a mile from a grocery store.

The Business of Unhealthiness: The problems of food pricing and access are couched in an entire business of unhealthiness. For example, the cost of unhealthy foods is far less than healthy ones-junk food offers the cheapest calories on the market. At one Roxbury grocery store, milk is 3.58 cents per ounce, while soda is just 2 cents. Fast food restaurants also cluster in black neighborhoods, as one academic study showed, outnumbering those in white neighborhoods nearly 2 to 1. Aggressive marketing and misleading food labels also contribute to the business of unhealthiness.

Food Activism: But many in Boston are working to change the city's food landscape so low-income families will have equal access to healthy foods. For instance, The Food Project, an innovative urban farming program, transforms abandoned city lots into working farms. The Food Project also set up farm stands in low-income Boston neighborhoods, and in conjunction with the mayor's office, pioneered the Bounty Bucks program, which matches, dollar for dollar, food stamp spending at farmer's markets-so $10 of food stamps buys $20 of produce.

At this stage, I have conducted a literature search and have started to reach out to community groups and individuals who will be featured in my articles.