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A question of access

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 11/16/2011, 8:08 a.m.
Healthy food is in short supply in communities of color Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil...

Healthy food is in short supply in communities of color

Leonard Lomax travels for an hour and a half to get to a grocery store. Without a car, the 58-year-old Dorchester resident rides the bus to get to a Stop and Shop where he can buy healthy food.

Throughout his life, Lomax lived on a diet of cake, candy, potato chips and other junk foods. “I like the way it tasted because I didn’t have anything else in mind to eat,” he said. Finding these foods was never difficult — he could always buy them at nearby corner stores.

After his teen years, Lomax’s weight quickly ballooned from 119 pounds to 270, and even after he worked to lose most of this weight, he was diagnosed with diabetes.

With his new disease, Lomax knew he had to change his eating habits. “I think I made a good choice by what I have to do to be in control of my diabetes — to eat the right food,” he said. “My advice for other people is to do the same thing, even if you’re not diabetic.”

But change is difficult when the nearest grocery store is so far away.

“Some of the challenges that I’ve observed for many families is that there isn’t always a supermarket or a grocery store that provides fresh produce that they can easily access,” City Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley said. “While we do have an excellent public transportation system, sometimes it can feel as if there’s a food desert.”

According to Boston Public Health Commission data, Roxbury and Dorchester have fewer grocery stores per capita than other neighborhoods in Boston. Roxbury has a grocery store for every 16,783 residents, and Dorchester has a grocery store for every 20,803 residents. These rates are nearly half that of the Fenway/Kenmore neighborhood, which houses a grocery store for every 9,941 residents. Mattapan has no full-service grocery stores within its borders.

This disparity is even more pronounced when compared to Central Square in Cambridge. Within walking distance from the Square are two Whole Foods, a Trader Joe’s, a Shaw’s, the Harvest food co-op and a few smaller grocery stores. This small neighborhood has nearly the same number of grocery stores as all of Roxbury and Dorchester combined.

The Boston food landscape mirrors national disparities in physical food access. According to a PolicyLink report, low-income neighborhoods have half the number of grocery stores as the wealthiest neighborhoods, and predominantly white neighborhoods have four times the number of grocery stores as predominantly black neighborhoods. Only 8 percent of African Americans nationwide live in a census tract with a grocery store.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also reports that 23.5 million people live in low-income neighborhoods more than one mile from a grocery store. These individuals spend nearly 20 minutes longer traveling to a grocery store than the national average of 15 minutes.

Another study conducted in Brooklyn, N.Y., assessed the availability of produce in stores, and found that fresh fruits and vegetables were more widely available in white neighborhoods than in neighborhoods of color.