Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Is Boston Food Insecure?

On searching for a salad in East Cambridge

I was recently in Boston for my son’s graduation. It’s a busy time of year with families converging on the city to celebrate. We found a place to stay in East Cambridge just off Cambridge Street where at night there were restaurants and bars packed with well-heeled clientele enjoying food and drink from all over the world. During the day though the well-heeled were gone and ordinary, hardworking people were going about their daily lives.

More than five a day

A few years ago I was diagnosed with coeliac disease. In the preceding undiagnosed years, the toxic effect of gluten meant poor absorption of nutrients which led to osteoporosis. To try to mitigate the damage I’ve adopted a “bone friendly” diet which basically means that every meal is dominated by vegetables. It’s easy to do at home — especially as I live in Italy where fresh and seasonal produce is everywhere. It can be a challenge when travelling though and after a few days of airline and hotel food I start craving vegetables. Once on my way home from the airport I stopped and bought a bag of lettuce and ate it straight out of the bag.

I need a salad

After the travelling and celebrating all I wanted was to stay in the apartment and have a salad for dinner. Not too much to ask, one would think. I’d seen a mini market just round the corner so headed there. Between the shelves stacked high with chips, crackers, hot dogs and all manner of convenience foods there was a small glass fronted cabinet with one cucumber, one tomato and a head of tired looking lettuce. They looked as though they had been put in the cabinet like precious Faberge eggs to avoid being stolen — and they certainly didn’t look fresh so I decided to shop elsewhere.

Food, food everywhere… but not a leaf in sight

Further down Cambridge Street I saw a supermarket where local people were doing their shopping. I went up and down every aisle but there was no fresh produce. By this time I was getting tired and thought that perhaps I could make do with frozen vegetables instead. I looked in the freezer section but there were none — only highly processed convenience foods.

Don’t give up

Now it was a challenge. I carried on down Cambridge Street determined to get my salad. There was a small shop selling tropical fruit and vegetables. That was closer to what I was looking for so I went in. The shopkeeper, half hidden behind piles of limes, plantains, yams and mangoes, told me that the only place I would find a salad was at Whole Foods on Beacon Street.

Amazon? Really?

So after walking one mile I finally arrived at Whole Foods and found what I was looking for. But this neighbourhood was more prosperous and clearly a different demographic from where I had started. I wondered about the people I had seen in the supermarket. They probably have neither the time nor the money to go on such a quest so where would they get their vegetables?

Access is part of food security

According to the Committee on World Food Security “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” There are four pillars to food security: availability (does the food exist); access (can you get it); utilization (can you use it); and stability (is the supply reliable). Given that you need vegetables as part of a healthy diet, from my recent experience I would argue that parts of East Cambridge are food insecure because it is so hard to get access to vegetables.

Big Ag, Big Food, Big Waists

Big Ag and Big Food are lapping up huge profits by making sure processed food is ubiquitous in places like East Cambridge and many other parts of the world. But this high fat, high salt, high sugar, low nutrient food has caused an obesity academic that is making the lives of millions a misery. Good advice on healthy diets is nearly as ubiquitous as the unhealthy food — but if ordinary people can’t easily get access to healthy food, how can they change their diets?

Big brains for local veg

The irony is that I wasn’t staying in a remote or deprived area. I was a ten minute walk from MIT where some of the world’s biggest and smartest brains are working on solving the planet’s problems. We badly need those big brains to figure out a way to make sure that fresh fruit and vegetables get equal shelf space along with the processed food that currently dominates the food chain. Over to you MIT.