Shortage of grocers plagues Mass. cities

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By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / March 7, 2011

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Massachusetts ranks nearly dead last — third from the bottom nationally — in having enough supermarkets with fresh, nutritious food, according to a report to be released today by the Massachusetts Public Health Association.

The shortage is especially severe in lower-income communities, where many residents struggle with obesity and related ailments.

The analysis — done for the public health advocacy group by the Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit — found that in some cities, such as Lowell and Fitchburg, the number of supermarkets would need to double to be in line with the national average.

In other urban areas, including Boston, Springfield, and Brockton, there are about 30 percent fewer supermarkets per person than the national average, the researchers found.

Representatives of the Patrick administration and the supermarket industry are joining with health advocates in a new task force to devise ways to attract more grocery stores to underserved areas. The report urges the state to use financial incentives to draw fresh food stores here.

A growing body of research indicates that people in communities without a nearby supermarket suffer disproportionately high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic health issues.

“These communities have many corner stores, but unfortunately few supermarkets with fresh fruits and vegetables,’’ said Miriam Manon, project manager for the Food Trust. She said corner stores typically offer a limited selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, if any.

The report found — as many residents who have to take two or three buses to get groceries already know — that supermarkets are concentrated along major highways and in suburban areas, while urban centers, as well as rural communities in Central and Western Massachusetts, are relatively underserved.

Lawrence, for example, a city of about 70,000 residents stretched across 7 miles, has just two grocery stores but over 100 bodegas, said Heather McMann, executive director of Groundwork Lawrence, a community development organization that has been trying to improve people’s access to healthier food.

“The whole Merrimack Valley is served by just 22 bus routes,’’ McMann said, “so it’s a lot easier to go to the corner store.’’

McMann said that while the suburban model — big box stores near a highway, with lots of parking — doesn’t work well in congested urban areas, smaller markets with somewhat fewer choices, but near public transportation, could be profitable for the grocery industry. She said analyses have shown that some urban communities have more purchasing power than previously believed because many families that are eligible for government-subsidized food stamps, which could be spent in supermarkets, don’t realize they qualify for the assistance.

Valerie Bassett, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, which helped create the new task force, said the issue of inadequate fresh food does not get the attention it deserves from government officials.

“Traditionally, it has not been the economic development priority of the state, versus health science or biotech, which have been bigger drivers,’’ she said. “But the truth is, there is a lot of economic development here, because supermarkets create jobs.’’

Bassett said Mayor Thomas M. Menino has made important headway attracting grocery stores to Boston, but more work needs to be done — a conclusion that is echoed in the new report. It said that more than a dozen supermarkets have opened in Boston over the past decade, including some in lower- and moderate-income neighborhoods, but that deficiencies still remain. It said Roxbury, Mattapan, and parts of Dorchester and East Boston have the fewest grocery stores, per person.

Some of the biggest hurdles to opening new stores in urban areas are the cost of acquiring land and high crime rates, said Christopher Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, an industry trade group.

“There are areas where our members have closed stores because there is so much theft and crime and it’s very difficult for them to operate,’’ Flynn said. “Stores cannot survive if they can’t get the business because people are afraid to go to them.’’

Stores have closed in the past 10 years in the Lowell and Lawrence areas as well as in Springfield, New Bedford, and Fall River, Flynn said, though he declined to say whether safety issues were the reason.

Flynn, whose organization is part of the new task force, said that to change the equation, the industry and state and local officials will need to work together to identify financing for these projects — not an easy task with the state’s projected billion-dollar-plus deficit — and to improve security in high-crime neighborhoods.

The report cited the success of a public-private partnership in Pennsylvania called the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which brought dozens of supermarkets to poorer communities in that state. The program, established in 2004, boasts the creation or expansion of 88 supermarkets in underserved areas and the addition of 5,000 jobs.

But success didn’t come cheaply. The state contributed $30 million over the first three years, and a community development organization used that money to leverage about $90 million more in loans and federal tax credits.

Flynn said that based on what he has heard from food industry leaders in Pennsylvania, a similar approach could work in Massachusetts.

Michael Hunter, the state’s undersecretary for business development and a member of the task force, said he was unsure Massachusetts would be able to contribute funding to such a project, but he said the Patrick administration believes access to fresh food is a critical piece of a much larger issue.

“We are interested in developing a comprehensive approach in cities and towns throughout the region, and working with public safety and all of our other partners to ensure neighborhoods are stable and good for growth,’’ Hunter said.

Even if the administration does not have much state money to devote to the mission, he said it could help by fast-tracking building permits and water and sewer work for a planned site and by training workers.

Kay Lazar can be reached at