Food Solutions

This is a four-part series by National Health Journalism Fellow Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil. Find more articles in the series.

Food Prices: A Raging Battle

Food Access: A Question of Access

Fast Food: A Fast Food Dilemma

Food Solutions: Healthy Eating Strengthens Bodies, Communities

Joel Varela, or JJ, as his mother likes to call him, is almost 2 years old and loves to eat his vegetables.

"You know how kids don't usually eat — but he eats a lot, he eats really good," his mother, Lizette Varela said. "My son loves broccoli — oh my god. If I give him a bowl of broccoli, he'll eat the whole thing!"

But these aren't just any vegetables that JJ devours — they are vegetables Varela has harvested herself. The 22-year-old Dorchester resident is an urban farmer.

Originally from Mexico, Varela moved to Texas when she was 14 years old, then to Boston when she was 19. Without any family, job, or place to stay, she and her son went to the Department of Transitional Assistance and were placed in a motel room. Growing up the granddaughter of farmers, Varela was accustomed to home-cooked meals and fresh ingredients, but soon turned to microwave dinners — the only food she could prepare in her motel room.

"It was really uncomfortable," she said of eating frozen meals everyday. "I couldn't sleep well for months — I was so hungry."

She was eventually transferred to Victory Programs' ReVision Family Home, where she has been living for several months. The Dorchester shelter works to transition women and their families to permanent housing through job training and education assistance, and also works to develop other skills like parenting and nutrition. In addition, these women have the opportunity to work on ReVision Urban Farm.

The farm, which started in 1990, spans three empty lots across the street from ReVision Family Home and provides fresh produce for the women at the shelter and local residents.

When Varela began several months ago, she was interested in gardening and cooking because of her family background, but knew little about it. That quickly changed. "They would tell me, ‘you can make all this, just sauté the vegetables,' and I was like, ‘say-what?' I didn't even know what that means," Varela said. "But I learned. And I think it's good because now I can provide my son with more healthy stuff."

As obesity rates skyrocket across the state and country, the importance of healthy eating is coming into focus for most Bostonians. But as previous articles in this series have shown, a nutritious diet is not always easy to attain — high food prices, access to high-quality food and the saturation of junk food prove formidable obstacles. And usually, these challenges are marked along racial and economic lines. In fact, low-income communities of color face the greatest difficulty securing healthy food.

At the same time, Boston boasts numerous innovative solutions to disparities in the city's food landscape, and individuals like Varela prove that difficulties can be overcome. Initiatives undertaken by nonprofit organizations, charities, businesses and city government are popping up everywhere. "This is a social justice issue," City Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley said of the obstacles to healthy eating. And Bostonians are eagerly taking up this new cause.

Miles away from ReVision Urban Farm, a moving truck pulls into a parking space near Franklin Square in the South End. The truck is filled with fresh vegetables — green beans, spinach, lettuce, Chinese cabbage and sweet potatoes — that will be sold at an impossibly low price, $2 for an entire grocery bag of produce.

The truck delivers 40,000 pounds of fresh produce to residents all around Boston each week — produce that otherwise would have been dumped in the trash.

Industrial food suppliers deliver produce to grocery stores and restaurants, but for a variety of reasons —over ordering, not enough space on the delivery truck, cosmetic blemishes in the fruits and vegetables — vast amounts of perfectly good food are never delivered. Instead, it is thrown away while thousands of Bostonians struggle to put food on the table each day.

Nancy Jamison, a Dorchester resident who formerly worked in the fashion industry, decided she would close the gap between food waste and hunger in Boston by picking up some of the food that was being thrown away and giving it to her neighbors.

As the operation now known as Fair Foods grew, Jamison donated nearly a million dollars of her own money to subsidize the costs of the service since revenues alone could not cover them. Operating on a shoestring budget, Fair Foods spends just $1,200 each week — barely breaking even — to deliver 20 tons of fresh food at 22 sites around the city each week.

As the back of the truck is flipped open, dozens of people rush to get in line, some pushing empty grocery carts or pulling suitcases. For just $2, customers can get a bag of assorted fruits and vegetables, about 10 pounds worth of food, Jamison estimates. In addition, pre-packaged bags of spinach are sold for $1, and crates of free green beans and lettuce are placed on the sidewalk.

Customers can take just a handful of beans or an entire crate. "Don't be shy — take a whole case of green beans if you want!" one of the volunteers shouted from inside the truck. And the produce is good — it looks exactly like what is stocked in nice grocery stores.

"Haymarket on wheels," which volunteers call the $2 a bag program, simultaneously remedies the challenges of cost, quality and access. Also taking on these same obstacles, but from a business angle, is Dorchester resident Jenny Silverman.

Silverman, along with other members of the community, are working to start a food cooperative in their neighborhood. Unlike an ordinary grocery store, a co-op is entirely owned and run by the community. Local residents buy equity shares in the co-op in exchange for a vote to elect the board of directors and to determine all matters of the store, but anyone can then shop at the store.

This model, Silverman explained, "allows the community to really control all the decision-making about the market, rather than an outside entity." As a result, the store will have a genuine "long-term interest in the community."

The Dorchester Community Food Co-Op is still in the planning phase, which means that right now Silverman is working to generate interest and support throughout the community. "The community reaction has been incredible," she said. "People are really, really enthusiastic about it."

In addition to bringing high-quality, affordable food to an underserved area, Silverman envisions the co-op becoming a pillar of support throughout Dorchester. "We're hoping that by spending money in the community, people are creating jobs in the community and revitalizing the neighborhood," she said. "To have a really vital, wonderful store in the neighborhood serves as an anchor for people in that neighborhood."

Like ReVision, the Dorchester Food Co-Op demonstrates that fixing the food landscape fixes broader social problems as well. Good food is not just the solution to poor health, but to community ills like unemployment and underdevelopment as well.

ReVision, Fair Foods, and the Dorchester Food Co-Op are not the only local groups working to transform Boston's food landscape. Through a variety of initiatives, The Food Project, an urban farming program for youth, provides food education and affordable produce to many Boston residents. As a youth, City Councilor At-Large Felix Arroyo worked for The Food Project, and said, "It changed my appreciation of food and how we get it."

Patricia Canning, the 24-year-old EMT featured in the first story of this series, is also an alumna of The Food Project, and credits the program for teaching her how to cook. For a summer she worked on the farm, and the following school year she worked in the kitchen — and learned so much that she even catered a wedding as an intern.

The Boston Natural Areas Network's Produce to Pantry project organizes community gardens to distribute part of their harvest to local shelters. "Most food pantries don't have access to food that's not processed," explained Karen Chaffee, stewardship manager of BNAN. "We're providing people with nutrients that they otherwise wouldn't get in their diet."

In addition to these and dozens of other local food-focused groups, social service organizations not traditionally affiliated with food, like ABCD, are now putting nutrition on their agendas.

Alongside these individuals, organizations, charities and businesses, the City of Boston has been one of the most active forces in transforming the city's food landscape. The city has supported legislation banning junk food and soda from public schools and soda from city buildings; an initiative to put more fresh produce in corner stores; celebrity chef cooking courses for Boston Public Schools parents; a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm share for senior citizens; increasing the number of community garden plots and grocery stores; creating healthy food trucks; and Boston Bounty Bucks, which doubles the value of SNAP at local farmers markets, among many other programs.

The city's tremendous commitment to increased food access started long before it was fashionable. In 1986, then-City Councilman Thomas M. Menino spearheaded the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program that offered vouchers to WIC recipients for produce at farmers' markets. Today, this local initiative has become a national program.

According to Edith Murnane, director of food initiatives for the City of Boston, these priorities come from an understanding of the relationships between food, hunger and health.

"What became really apparent was that hunger was one element, and health was the other, and that they were both on the same coin," she explained. "We've got a mayor and a governor who really understand food access … They're incredibly focused on hunger and health."

Pressley also cited health as the reason for the city's persistent efforts toward food equality. With rapidly rising health care costs and rates of obesity and chronic disease, it's all about "prevention, prevention, prevention," she said.

"You're setting people on the best trajectory to live a healthy life by introducing these foods and access to these foods as early as possible," she explained. "The health of the individual, the family, and the community are all inextricably linked. So if you want a healthy city, it begins with the individual."

Molly Shaw, a nutritionist at the Uphams Corner community health clinic, offered one simple step to a better diet — "make room on your plate for fruits and vegetables." It can be any vegetable, she explained, and even if nothing else changes in a person's diet, the addition of fruits and vegetables will go a long way.

Despite all the challenges addressed in this series, Boston is truly a city of solutions. With 26 farmers' markets, nearly 150 community gardens — more per capita than any other city in the country — one of the lowest obesity rates in the country and the lowest fast food spending in the country, Bostonians have been ahead of the curve for decades.

But more remains to be done to transform the current food landscape into a fully equitable one.

"If you eat the typical American diet now, you are eating your way to chronic disease," said Anne McHugh, division director of chronic disease at the Boston Public Health Commission. "Individuals have to get together to demand that we have a healthier food system because that's in the end what's going to give us the better choices that everyone needs."

This series was funded by the University of Southern California National Health Journalism Fellowship.