A question of access

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 11/16/2011, 8:08 a.m.

Lomax’s experience certainly feels like that of a food desert, as Councilor Pressley said. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not include Roxbury or Dorchester in this category. After all, these two neighborhoods have a handful of chain grocery stores — Stop and Shop, Shaw’s, America’s Food Basket, Save-a-Lot — and boast the highest number of community gardens in the entire city.

 “Boston is a better place than many cities on availability of full-service supermarkets,” said Anne McHugh, division director of chronic disease at the Boston Public Health Commission. “But it is not perfect at all.”

“Food deserts,” areas that lack access to healthy food, have become the most common way of measuring food inequality in the United States. For example, a signature component of Let’s Move, the first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, is tackling food deserts.

“Our goal is ambitious,” Obama said in a promotional video for her campaign. “It’s to eliminate food deserts in America completely in seven years. With a modest initial investment of about $400 million a year, we’re going to use that money to leverage hundreds of millions more from private and nonprofit sectors to bring grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved communities all across this country.”

While an important term, the measure of food deserts alone is insufficient to capture the full picture of culinary inequality in the United States and Boston. Roxbury and Dorchester are not technically food deserts, but clear discrepancies exist between these two neighborhoods and others in and around Boston.

 Cambridge and Fenway/Kenmore, for instance, offer a variety of grocery stores — high end and cheaper ones — and each of these stores is centrally located, easy to walk to and close to public transportation. Roxbury and Dorchester, by contrast, offer only regular and discount grocery stores, and each of these is typically located on the edges of the neighborhood.

 The map illustrates this pattern. Stop and Shop and Shaw’s are two of New England’s largest grocery store chains and have numerous locations throughout the Greater Boston area. With the exception of the Stop and Shop in Grove Hall, these two chain stores are only located on the periphery of Roxbury and Dorchester, forming a ring around the two neighborhoods. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, two high-end national grocery chains that stock natural and organic products, are not even on the edges of these neighborhoods — the closest of either stores is the Whole Foods on Westland Avenue near Symphony Hall and the recently opened one in Jamaica Plain on Centre Street.

In addition to these grocery chains, Roxbury features Tropical Foods and Save-a-Lot, both near Dudley Square, and Dorchester hosts two America’s Food Basket locations. While these are more central than the large-scale chains, large segments of Roxbury and Dorchester are still a considerable distance from any grocery store, leaving residents like Lomax a 90-minute bus ride away from these healthy food options.

Food quality is another area of discrepancy. The Whole Foods in Fenway is pristine, bright and inviting, with fresh flowers and herbs always on display, and offers indoor and outdoor seating options for customers. The store is always bustling with activity and in addition to being a food retailer, also serves as a hangout spot. America’s Food Basket on Geneva Avenue, on the other hand, has major cracks in its glass doors, a security guard who asks customers to check their bags at the door, dirty floors and dim lighting.