Food System Report Examines Local Affordability, Availability

food system assessmentTaj Mahal Desi Bazaar, between Winter Hill and East Somerville. Photo by Evan Sayles.

Home to an abundance of restaurants, specialty food boutiques, and food trucks, Somerville has no shortage of food. Yet even in this environment access to affordable, nutritious foods is not guaranteed.

Shape Up Somerville and the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) set off to assemble a  comprehensive assessment of food access in the city a year and a half ago. They recruited a 16-member working group to develop the report, which is scheduled to be released in early May.

“When we talk about food access, what we mean by that is not just geographical location,” Shape Up Somerville Director Lisa Robinson says. “We wanted to understand better what it meant from an affordability and availability [perspective]—specifically how it aligns with people’s preferences, whether they be cultural preferences, diet preferences, or religious preferences.”

The report looks at four facets of Somerville’s food system: equitable and just access, population health, economic development opportunities, and resource utilization. Rather than an action plan, the report’s creators intend it to be an informative tool for policymakers and community organizations going forward.

Fair Access

When the report’s authors refer to “food insecurity,” they include not just people who don’t have enough to eat, but also people who don’t have a way to maintain healthy nutrition, Robinson says.

The 2008 recession precipitated a larger need for food assistance from local pantries, according to Lisa Brukilacchio, director of the Somerville Community Health Agenda at CHA.

Data from the report found that people living in Winter Hill and East Somerville were particularly vulnerable to poor food access, since these areas don’t have optimal access to a full-service grocery store. Schools in these neighborhoods are able to provide free universal lunch and breakfast through federal funding from the Community Eligibility Program, the report’s leaders say.

Census tract data provided by the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) indicates that the most profoundly impacted areas of Somerville could have food insecurity rates of up to 19.6 percent.

Female-headed households, seniors, children, immigrant populations, lower-income populations, and communities of color are also more vulnerable to food insecurity, according to the authors.

While it’s still too early to draw final conclusions from the food assessment’s data, the findings support existing evidence that a wide range of societal obstacles—such as housing insecurity, gaps in access to transportation, and structural racism—have serious impacts on food security, say Robinson, Brukilacchio, and CEO of Northbound Ventures Holly Fowler, who helped facilitate the research.

For example, focus groups revealed that racist remarks made by local bus drivers were an additional barrier for people who used public transit for food access. This is something the city needs to grapple with, even if there is more research to be done, Brukilacchio says.

“It’s the system piece that we needed to better understand,” Brukilacchio says. “And now we know that we don’t understand.”

“It doesn’t seem that far to make it to the new Super Stop & Shop. But if you live in Mystic Housing, what’s between you and that Stop & Shop? A six-lane highway.”

In terms of transportation, having access to a car is closely tied to best food access, Robinson says. Walking, biking, or taking the bus to stores means juggling bags, and makes shop-hopping impractical, she explains. Moreover, it can discourage shoppers from buying in bulk, which often provides the best unit price, Fowler adds.

Robinson notes that the report’s asset maps emphasize walking time to grocery stores, rather than driving time. Though 100 percent of the city’s population lives within a 10-minute drive to a full-service grocery store, most lower-income residents don’t have access to a car, she says.

“There was a grocery store on Lower Broadway that closed,” Brukilacchio says. “Now, it doesn’t seem that far to make it to the new Super Stop & Shop. But if you live in Mystic Housing, what’s between you and that Stop & Shop? A six-lane highway, among other things.”

As a result, a Lower Broadway pharmacy became the main grocery store in the area, she says. Cases like these led the working group to focus on neighborhood markets and their role in providing quality food to local people, Robinson says.

“We were curious as to how do these stores fill a need,” Robinson says. “In these conversations, they’re often overlooked.”

Federal politics has also impacted food access locally, according to the report’s leaders. Fears among immigrant communities about being seen as a “public charge” have led to a decrease in the number of people taking advantage of federal benefits such as SNAP, Brukilacchio says. Some local food retailers and health service providers have noted this drop, the report’s leaders say.

The Economic Landscape

The report’s data come from focus groups, economic analysis, retail assessment, and asset mapping.

To map food assets in the city, working group members laid out the physical locations of various food retailers, distinguishing among grocery stores, convenience stores, neighborhood markets, and other consumer centers, according to Fowler.

Using a point system, working group members then evaluated the food quality, price, and diversity of products sold in each location. This assessment process involved identifying a number of common food items—such as cooking oil, potatoes, and dried beans—and determining how much each item of the same size and shape would cost at various retail locations, and whether they were sold at all in certain types of stores.

Fowler says the researchers aimed to use the data to validate information they’d gathered in focus groups, such as community members’ perceptions of product affordability and how well food suppliers were meeting their needs.

The data are also useful in evaluating the contributions of the food sector to Somerville’s economy, Fowler says.

“It feels like food is really, really important in Somerville,” she says. “We want to know why that is.”

According to the report’s authors, the food economy in Somerville is doing well—better, on average, than in both the state and national economies. Over the past five years, the food economy has grown 14 percent in Somerville, compared to 10 percent in Massachusetts and 13 percent nationwide.

Food economy workers in the city make $0.66 and $2.07 more per hour than their average peers in the state and country, respectively. But other data paint a bleaker picture, showing that the most common jobs in the Somerville food economy are minimum wage positions in food services, such as waiters and cashiers, and that people employed in the food sector typically make a lower salary than Somerville residents who are employed in different sectors.

What’s Up Next

The assessment—funded by the City of Somerville and the Tisch College Community Research Center at Tufts University—arose out of an ongoing conversation among community members and non-profit groups interested in food systems and security around the city, according to Robinson.

Before the assessment, community groups had already collected data showing that 9.3 percent of the 32,000 households in Somerville received SNAP benefits in 2015—up 4.9 percent from 2010, according to Brukilacchio. These conversations worked hand-in-hand with several local initiatives, including a CHA questionnaire to screen patients for food insecurity.

This is not Somerville’s first report on the local food system. The original Somerville Community Food Assessment project, completed in conjunction with Tufts University and other community stakeholders, began in late 1999—a time when these types of assessments were just starting to appear, Brukilacchio says.

The report generated the Somerville Guide to Food and Nutrition Resources and the Public Health Nutrition Taskforce. It also laid the groundwork for the eventual creation of Shape Up Somerville, and served as a model for other communities, the report’s authors say.

“Somerville has always been at the forefront of self-evaluation with regard to evolution of the food system,” Fowler says. “These issues have all been evolving, and Somerville was there at each stage.”

Fowler says the scale of the assessment poses some challenges, since most publicly available figures on economics and demographics are collected at the national, state, or county level. “There’s not the granularity of data available for just the city,” she says.

The working group members hope that sharing methodologies and research with neighboring communities like Medford and Everett will help them better understand their data, Robinson says.

Once the report is released, it will be the work of community non-profits to turn the recommendations into action plans, and to advise city leaders and institutions on how to promote more equitable food access, according to Brukilacchio.

“We envision [Shape Up Somerville] and [the Somerville Food Security Coalition] will continue to play leading roles, however this assessment was about engaging a broader range of partners and stakeholders,” Robinson, Brukilacchio, and Fowler told Scout in a follow-up email. “The report is not an action plan, but a guiding document. Once the report is finished, the groups involved and others will take up discussion, prioritization, and action planning, including accountability, around the recommendations.”

This story appears in the Food, Glorious Food! issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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