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When Mayor Michelle Wu mentioned the formation of the new GrowBoston: Office of Urban Agriculture last week, Vivien Morris knew that the program could make a difference for Mattapan residents, who rely on a single grocery store and have little local access to healthy food options.
Morris has long been part of bringing healthy food to her neighborhood, having helped create the Mattapan Square Farmers Market.
Formed 16 years ago by the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition, the market has enough visitors that people stand in line to buy fresh, healthy food, according to Morris, who founded the coalition and serves as its board chair.
Access is the name of the game, and Morris, along with other community leaders in Boston, is hoping to continue to provide opportunities for people from all walks of life to have access to nutritious food — and not worry about the cost.
On Thursday, Mayor Wu announced the creation of GrowBoston, which is aimed at food production. The mayor also renamed the Office of Food Access as the Mayor’s Office of Food Justice, with the goal of making healthy food affordable and available to Boston residents through a variety of ways, including increasing access and providing financial assistance to food businesses.
There’s a variety of ways to increase access, according to Morris. These include working with organizations that are connected with low-income families and helping them sign up for city services, as well as those provided by the state and federal governments.
Then there’s building more community gardens so not only can people grow their own food, but children and young people can learn about where healthy food comes from.
In neighborhoods like Mattapan, food access can be intertwined with other factors that impact residents’ health, like a history of discrimination and going through a challenging educational system. Then there are the jobs people wind up in if they don’t reach a certain level of education, Morris pointed out.
“The wages that people get for the types of jobs that seem to be more available and accessible for people of color aren’t high enough that they could afford to purchase that nice apple that costs over a dollar, versus the bag of chips that they can get for 50 cents,” Morris said.
“There’s a lot of unhealthy food available,” she said. “The number of places that sell high calorie, high fat foods like the Burger Kings, and the other forms of fast food, they’re so accessible in our communities, and while we push to not allow too many of those in our communities, they still come.”
And while there may be a variety of options for buying unhealthy or fast foods, what Mattapan, for example, is lacking is grocery stores. There’s just one medium-sized one for the entire neighborhood, Morris said. This means that people may find their food at convenience stores, some of which could have higher prices than a grocery store.
“They’re paying more for the food and yet those convenience stores have really limited amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, so again, then what you end up purchasing is what’s accessible to you,” she said.
Access also means considering how to make healthy food more affordable.
“The cost of healthy foods are quite high, and the cost of foods are going up as we speak, which means that people who are purchasing food sometimes have to make those decisions about what they really can afford,” Morris said.
Then there’s the fact that thousands of people who qualify for food assistance, like SNAP, don’t sign up for it. This could be for a variety of reasons, including immigration status, according to Morris.
“They fear that it might impact their status in some other way, and so they stay away from them,” Morris said.
Through avenues like the farmers’ market, Morris said the organization can work with local farmers of color – there’s more of those now, thanks to work from groups like Urban Farming Institute.
“We wanted to make sure that we brought in the food that connected with the cultural histories and backgrounds of the community,” she said.
Mattapan is also getting ready to open a “food forest,” where affordable, healthy food will be grown all the time.
“It’s all set to open this spring, but the idea is to have fruit trees, nut trees, blueberry bushes, pear trees, all kinds of fruits and healthy foods that are totally accessible to all people at any time,” Morris said, “and a way for people to both enjoy the space, but also know that there’s healthy accessible foods totally available to them.”
That’s where new avenues like Mayor Wu’s latest food initiatives come into play, in particular when they can partner with local movements like Morris’s. The goal is to have a system where residents have consistent access to healthy food, and that food is also affordable, “culturally appropriate, and nutritious,” according to a press release.
“Urban agriculture, including community gardens, urban farms, food forests, and other ways of growing food in the city can directly strengthen our local food system, mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis and ensure equitable access to healthy food in Boston,” Wu said in the release.
“GrowBoston and the Office of Food Justice will combat inequities in the food system, reduce the carbon footprint of food access, and increase food security while reducing climate change impacts,” she said.
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