Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Let’s make Cambridge a place that provides options for healthy and affordable food for all residents.

Food insecurity exists in Cambridge – the Covid-19 pandemic exposed this, but it has been an issue for decades. There are five Whole Food Groceries stores in the Cambridge area, an H Mart, three Star Markets, three Trader Joe’s, a Brother’s market and a few neighborhood markets. None of these are able to adequately serve the needs of low- and moderate-income individuals and families in Cambridge. The recent addition of the Daily Table Store in Central Square is an affordable option, but its options are limited. 

The majority of our low- and moderate-income Cambridge residents shop for groceries at Market Basket in Somerville. Cambridge has even offered bus service for seniors to shop across the border in Somerville. The city and its community partners such as Food for Free, Project Bread and many social services agencies and restaurants stepped up to feed our residents during Covid-19 and I am proud of the way the city committed resources. 

But what happens after the pandemic? Food security is tied to financial security. Access to affordable and healthy food is not only a health issue but an economic development concern, and must be treated as such. The cost of housing in Cambridge is rising rapidly, as is the price of food. Many of our low-income residents and working poor have few options for day care. The escalating costs of these basic needs are squeezing out our low-, moderate- and middle-income families.

We need long-term solutions that offer access to fresh, healthy and affordable food for our residents. A post-Covid plan should include affordable grocery stores, especially in areas with limited access to stores. These include The Port, Riverside and North Cambridge. North Cambridge in particular has a diverse population of immigrants and low-income residents, 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line. But the nearest affordable major grocery store is in Somerville, and there are no farmers markets nearby. You can’t walk there or use a bicycle to shop for a family.

For the past 12 years, I have been working with regional food policy and food systems to expand the availability of healthy local food for all Massachusetts residents. I was recognized in 2015 as a Cambridge Food Hero for my work in sustainable food and tackling issues of food accessibility and food insecurity. Through my work with the nonprofit Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, I have led the Local Food Committee in advancing availability and access to our local farmers and fishers through programs such as the Boston Local Food Festival, Eat Local Month, the Eat Local MA app and Local Food Trade Show. I was co-founder and organizer of the Boston Local Food Festival, New England’s largest one-day farmers market, celebrating and promoting healthy local food for all. This year it was presented Sept. 19 on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. 

Affordable places to buy food is a basic need that has not been addressed properly. The city’s economic development plan should be addressing long-term solutions for our residents so they have secure access to food. Food pantries and food donation programs are temporary measures, but are not long-term solutions. Additionally these programs rely on federal, state and city funding and resources to sustain them. How is it that we are expanding our housing in North Cambridge without a plan for how to feed our growing population affordably?

Here are strategies that I propose the city pursue for improving food access and security in Cambridge:

  • Seek out funding from the Massachusetts Food Trust to develop a feasibility study for potential sites for affordable grocery stores in Cambridge
  • Build affordable grocery stores on city land or parking lots by offering a 99-year lease for a developer or food establishment that will serve the needs of area residents
  • Negotiate with developers who are proposing to build labs, affordable housing and market-rate housing to offer affordable grocery store as part of their community benefits plan
  • Facilitate and support a new farmers market to serve the North Cambridge community that offers culturally connected produce and products that serves the culturally diverse needs of residents
  • Work closely with agricultural and nonprofit groups including the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, Food for Free and the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture in improving food security and access throughout Cambridge
  • Exercise eminent domain on abandoned property to be used for building affordable grocery stores

These strategies will help make Cambridge more food secure by offering healthy, affordable food in low-income, underserved areas so that the basic needs of all residents are served.

Nicola Williams, candidate for Cambridge City Council