A Seat at the Table

Food access and insecurity in Somerville

By Shannon Cain Arnold

Photo by Kelly MacDonald

In the cold of this past January, people flocked to the new winter farmers market at the Center for Arts at the Armory (191 Highland Ave). People were hungry – literally and figuratively – for the fruits and vegetables that are abundant during warmer months. The winter market filled a need, but it also raised a question: Does everyone in Somerville have access to fresh, healthy food? The answer is complicated.
In a 2010 survey conducted by Shape Up Somerville (SUS), a city program designed to combat childhood obesity, and the Institute for Community Health (ICH), in which the majority of respondents were low-income residents of Winter Hill, 32 percent reported eating less than one fruit or vegetable per day. Only 3 percent reported eating five or more.

Quantity or Quality?

Go to any grocery store, and compare how many fresh fruits and vegetables you can get for $10 versus how much processed food you can get for the same price. Chances are, the processed food will feed more people for less money. As it happens, 46 percent of respondents to the SUS/ICH survey cited cost as a barrier to obtaining the food they need. The choice often becomes quantity over quality. “It’s about food versus fuel,” says Lisa Brukilacchio, Director of the Somerville Community Health Agenda with Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA). “If you are struggling to pay for heat and can buy boxes of macaroni and cheese for a dollar, that might be what you eat in your sort-of warm kitchen.”
Charitable organizations providing food to the city’s low-income and homeless residents also face difficulties obtaining fresh produce. Mark Alston-Follansbee, Executive Director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition (SHC), reports that SHC’s pantry generally provides only nonperishables: “We’ll take some fresh produce if we know we can give it out right away. We don’t have the money for refrigeration. Our funding has been cut year after year, and we had a 20 percent increase in clients in 2010.”
A middle-aged man in line for the food pantry at Elizabeth Peabody House (EPH, 277 Broadway), told Scout, “The other pantries I’ve been to are pretty high on carbohydrates. I’d like more fresh produce.” Still, the man, who describes himself as a permanent part-time worker, says he can’t be picky: “Once food started taking up too much of my budget, I started going to the food pantry. If it’s a question of eating or not eating, I’ll take what I can get.”
In fact, EPH has found ways to provide healthy options. They receive leftover produce from Farmer Dave’s (437 Parker Rd, Dracut) community supported agriculture (CSA) dropoff in East Somerville in the summer (at 16 Garfield St), as well as donations from Food for Free (FFF, 11 Inman St, Cambridge), a nonprofit that distributes surplus produce from farms to food programs. Still, according to EPH Outreach & Resource Coordinator Paul Kuhne, his clients often want more fresh produce than the pantry can supply.

Who is getting the message?

Somerville’s cultural diversity makes food access a thorny issue. Many immigrants come from places where produce is more affordable than processed food. Jaime Corliss, Director of SUS, recalls a Brazilian immigrant telling her: “If you had ten dollars in Brazil and you walked into a McDonalds, you would come out with a hamburger. But if you went to the farmers market you would come out with bags and bags of produce. It’s the opposite here.” As Bethany Bellingham, CSA Manager for Farmer Dave’s, points out, the cost of produce here is largely a systemic issue: “Small-scale farmers are competing with big agribusiness and always doing all they can to keep costs down. It’s not a high profit margin business.”
Jadilma Santos, 40, of Union Square, grew up in Brazil, where she says: “We didn’t have a lot of money and we always had fresh fruit.” Santos found it harder to eat healthily on a budget in the U.S. Her two sons, now ten and seven, didn’t eat many vegetables. Then, about three years ago, Santos entered a raffle and won a free CSA farm share from Red Fire Farm (7 Carver St, Granby), which provided her family a weekly box of produce throughout the growing season. Santos, who had been told by her doctor to eat healthier and lower her cholesterol, learned to cook and enjoy a wide variety of new foods. And her sons became excited about trying different vegetables.
Cost issues aside, Santos believes a lot of people don’t eat fruits and vegetables because they are unfamiliar with the products available. After winning the CSA share, Santos began working at Farmer Dave’s CSA dropoff in East Somerville in exchange for a yearly share. She noticed how the direct-from-the-farm model helped people understand what they were eating: “At the CSA, people can ask questions about the food, find out where it comes from, and even get ideas on how to prepare it.”
The raffle through which Santos won her CSA was part of the Community Growing Center’s (22 Vinal Ave) targeted outreach to improve nutrition in Somerville’s immigrant communities. Brukilacchio believes this kind of outreach – aimed at specific communities, using multiple media platforms, and in people’s native languages – is the only way to educate the whole community. However, in a city with more than 50 spoken languages, such outreach requires resources. Melissa McWhinney, Advocacy Director for the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS, 66-70 Union Sq), says that her agency seeks out multilingualism among its staff, but many smaller agencies don’t have the capacity to communicate with large portions of the population.

Fresh, Local, and Affordable?

Farmer Dave’s does a great deal to bring fresh produce to lower-income residents. In addition to donating surplus produce, they are working to make their CSA more affordable. Beginning this summer, they will offer “Share a Share,” a program using donated funds to subsidize up to 50 percent of the cost of a CSA share for low-income residents at their East Somerville pickup site.
In an effort to draw more low-income customers, farmers markets in Somerville began accepting SNAP/EBT, or food stamps, this summer. The Union Square market – which had accepted EBT from 2005-2007 but stopped because of funding cuts – saw a sixfold increase in EBT spending in 2010. At the winter market, the average EBT usage per day has been slightly higher than the average usage per day at the Union Square and Davis Square markets.
Still, more outreach is needed. “The majority of clients I’ve spoken to have said that they weren’t even aware that the farmers markets accepted EBT,” says Kuhne. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a nationally funded program providing supplemental food to low-income pregnant women, provides free farmers market coupons during the summer. But those coupons are redeemed less than 50 percent of the time, according to Woanyih Lin, WIC Program Coordinator. “When we ask clients why they didn’t use their coupons, they usually cite inconvenience of location or lack of transportation,” she says.

Solving the problem

Efforts are underway to make farmers markets more accessible – in terms of cost and location – to low-income residents. Beginning in June, a group including SUS, Groundwork Somerville and Enterprise Farms will hold a weekly farmers market at the Mystic River Development (Mystic Ave and Memorial Rd), open to residents of the housing development and the general public. The market will accept SNAP/EBT and Enterprise Farm will sell produce at wholesale prices. “The point of starting this market is to meet the needs of people who don’t have a lot of money or healthy food options in their neighborhood,” says Nicole Rioles of SUS. Plans for the market are ongoing. The group is still seeking funding for the project.
Low-income Somerville residents are also helping themselves. Last year, with the help of Rachel Beddick, a community organizer from CAAS, tenants at the Clarendon Hill housing development (North St and Powderhouse Blvd) organized a small community garden. Jocelyn Scott, a resident of the development and head of the garden committee, says that having the garden helped her and her fellow residents keep food costs down in the summer. But the community-based program also posed challenges: “We’ve had a lot of vandalism, and some people complain about the space it takes up,” she says. “A lot of people don’t understand how this could benefit them, that the garden is for people to grow their vegetables, save money, and teach their kids to eat well.” Still, the residents plan to continue the garden project this summer.

Starting With Schools

While outreach to adults remains a challenge, Somerville has received national acclaim for SUS, particularly its work on bringing healthy choices into school lunch programs. “Our children are a captive audience for nine months out of the year, and it’s important that they know about nutrition and have healthy options,” says Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone. Statistically speaking, SUS seems to have had an effect. In the first year of a Tufts University study on the program, children in first through third grades participating in SUS gained an average of one pound less than children in comparable communities. That solitary pound may not sound like much, but Corliss calls it “the most groundbreaking result of our study.”
On a recent visit to the West Somerville Neighborhood School (177 Powderhouse Blvd), students had relatively healthy food options, including salads and apples and baby carrots. According to lunch room staff, pizza and calzones are also frequent options, but they are made with whole wheat dough and low fat cheese. Students are required to choose one protein, one dairy, and one fruit or vegetable (or both) with their meal. Conventional desserts are unavailable; the closest thing is a half pint of low-fat chocolate milk.
Still, it is entirely possible for a student to leave the lunchline without a vegetable. On the day a Scout reporter observed the cafeteria, many students opted for an apple, a ham and cheese calzone and a low-fat chocolate milk. Moreover, while cafeteria workers enforced the one protein, one dairy, and one fruit or vegetable rule, there was little enforcement about whether kids ate the food they took. In fact, many students disposed of the produce on their trays without taking a single bite.
Regardless, the consensus of cafeteria workers was that the least nutritious choices generally came from students who brought lunch from home. “A lot of the snacks that parents send in are just not good choices. Chips are the big thing,” says Joanna Keefe, a “lunch mother” in the cafeteria for the last three years.
At the Winter Hill Community School (WHCS, 115 Sycamore St), during middle school lunch time, Scout saw dozens of students choosing salads for their meals. One of the students enjoying a salad, eighth grader Midardley Joseph, said, “I feel like we get a lot of healthy choices here. I try to eat healthy at home too, even though I don’t want to.”

A Community Effort

There is no single solution to food insecurity in Somerville. A coalition of 16 local agencies that work with various segments of the population, in partnership with Tufts University, recently formed a Community Action Board (CAB) to identify and study issues of food insecurity in Somerville. “We need a multi-pronged effort to make sure people first have enough food and then to make sure they get the nutrition they need,” says Alston-Follansbee, a founding member of the CAB.
Results of the study, which surveyed community members and formed focus groups to identify areas of food insecurity, will be released this spring. At that point, the CAB will begin discussing strategies for addressing problems. Keep an eye on the Scout blog for a breakdown of the CAB’s conclusions.

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