Nearly 1 in 5 Boston residents lack access to healthy food, and COVID-19 has only made the problem worse. To address this issue, the American Heart Association recently partnered with two local organizations to help launch a pop-up market where city residents can purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices.
The market, which opened in July of 2021, is located at Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, a health clinic in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. Every other Thursday, about 150 people visit the site to purchase bags of fresh produce, which are provided by the Dorchester-based food rescue organization Fair Foods.
The bags contain about 10 to 20 pounds of fruits and vegetables and cost $2, although those who cannot pay are not turned away. The Harvard Street site is one of about 20 locations Fair Foods delivers to.
The market launched after Stephanie Voltaire, a community impact director for the American Heart Association in Boston, identified Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center as a suitable location for a Fair Foods market. At the time, Voltaire was working with the health center on a program to help its patients control their blood pressure.
Voltaire connected Fair Foods with the health center and helped the organizations work out certain logistics, such as figuring out who would be staffing the market. She also attended several training sessions where Fair Foods staff taught employees at the health center how to operate the market.
The market is now run year-round by Harvard Street employees, said Dr. Tanveer Khan, the health center’s director of clinical quality improvement and quality assurance.
Khan said the market has had a “great impact” on the health center’s patients, many of whom are immigrants living below the poverty line. Some patients take multiple bags of food each week, which Khan said illustrates how vital the program is to the local population.
“Not many people are comfortable talking about food insecurity, but it is a serious problem that needs to be addressed,” said Khan, who noted that food insecurity means a person is struggling to get enough food or has to make tough choices between food and other basic needs.
In Boston, 18% of the city’s residents are food insecure, but that rate ranges from 8.7% to 27.1% depending on the neighborhood, according to the most recent data from the Mayor’s Office of Food Access for the City of Boston. By comparison, the food insecurity rate for all of Massachusetts is about 10 percent.
Although food insecurity is not a new problem, the COVID-19 pandemic increased awareness of the issue and its disproportionate impact on historically disenfranchised communities, said Khan. The Boston neighborhoods the health center serves – Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury – are areas of the city where poverty rates are higher than average and where residents must travel the furthest distances to a grocery store, according to the mayor’s office.
These and other social determinants of health, such as race and education, can have a substantial impact on one’s ability to buy enough healthy food. The results can be devastating, with increased risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer
Khan credited the market as being part of a “multi-pronged approach” to improving both nutrition and food security, and ultimately, the health of Boston.
“Addressing the root cause of food insecurity and not just the symptoms is the ultimate solution,” she said.