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The Food Project

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse | 5/11/2010, 7:27 p.m.

 Access to healthy food is a significant problem for many low-income families, since 5.7 million Americans live over a half-mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car.

And federal assistance program recipients and eligible non-participants travel, on average, 4.9 miles to their food retailer of choice, spending far more time obtaining food than high-income individuals do, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The federal agency further argued that food access has a direct relationship to dietary intake; the more accessible supermarkets are, the better one’s diet tends to be.

So with obesity rates soaring in low-income and minority neighborhoods, proximity to supermarkets is not just an issue of convenience, but of public health, they argued.

Cost is the other problem. Food prices are higher in the small convenience stores that populate low-income neighborhoods, the USDA acknowledged — and these prices are limiting. In 2008, 14.6 percent of American households were “food insecure,” meaning food often runs out before they have money to buy more. This percentage marks a dramatic increase in the past 10 years.

 At 8.3 percent, Massachusetts stands below the national average of food-insecure households, but this number is also higher than it was a decade ago.

TFP takes food accessibility seriously, and has developed an array of programs aimed at eliminating these “food deserts.”

 One program matches, dollar for dollar, food stamp spending at local farmers’ markets. Under that program, an individual or family with $100 in food stamps, for instance, can purchase $200 worth of produce at participating farmers’ markets.

To accommodate neighborhoods without these venues, TFP created several farmers’ markets.

This farmers’ market program combats the idea that healthy food is only for the wealthy by ensuring that high-quality produce is available to and affordable for low-income Boston residents.

No advance application or registration is required; food stamp recipients simply see the manager at any participating farmers’ market and will receive a voucher for use at any vendor.

But this program not only benefits food stamp recipients; it also increases business for farmers.

Supported through government and private funding, the program now operates at 14 farmers’ markets in Boston and its suburbs.  

 In another program, TFP helps families grow their own produce. Funded through a grant from the Boston Public Health Commission as part of its obesity prevention campaign, “Build-a-Garden” will install 400 raised-bed gardens in Boston, as well as teach people how to use them.

Part of TFP’s success appears to be its seamless integration into the community.

“It’s not an outside thing,” John Wang explained.

Jess Liborio, farm manager at the West Cottage Street site, also said that a lot of Cape Verdean immigrants live around the farm, and frequently stop by to exchange gardening tips.

But for an intern, Simmons, quality is what makes TFP unique. “All the [grocery stores are] worried about is getting the tomato out there, and not the quality,” he said. “This is what we’re focused on — quality — and they focus on quantity.”