Fair Foods Fights Nutritional Insecurity

On a wintry Tuesday in January, I boarded the bus in Central Square. Half an hour later a block from Boston Medical Center and proceeded to walk west on Washington St. until I came to the Cathedral Projects housing complex. I went the next block over to the South End Salvation Army shelter and asked the manager where Fair Foods runs its dollar bag program.

Back on Washington St. I noticed a white delivery truck opening a sliding door and displaying boxes of mixed produce and bananas against the side of the truck. I quickly went over to the truck and introduced myself to Jason, the market manager. I told him that I was from Spare Change News and wanted to write an article about the organization’s food program. This produce market is known as the South End Dollar Bad Program.

The South End DBP is open from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and has provided low-income and immigrant families, as well as middle class people with high quality produce and fruits at reasonable prices. It is located at the corner of Washington and West Brookline Street, a 15-minute walk from Massachusetts Avenue.

With already high and escalating food prices coupled with the cold New England winter, a produce market in the supermarket-strapped South End at reasonable prices is a welcome sight. Here, families can buy an over sized bag of produce and fruit for $2. This large bag would provide a family of two with 4 to 5 days of fresh food. The week that I visited food such as large white cooking onions, fresh beets, small baking potatoes, pre-packaged Romanian salads, celery stalks, bags of carrots and organic bananas were all on display.

“We have a broad-based selection year round,” said Jason, the South End market manager. “In summer we carry fresh strawberries and broccoli. This week we sold organic bananas.” He added, “We sell to everyone who comes to the market.”

A retired Russian couple agreed that the DBP always has a good selection. “We come to the Washington Street location all the time year round.”

Meanwhile, a resident of Cathedral Park Housing who lives on a fixed income said the prices are very good. “The selection is very good, especially in the winter when prices are very high.”

A Hispanic women who lives on West Brookline Street and her sister said that they come to this location all year round. “I like the organic bananas that they have this week,” she added. “The bananas are very sweet and my children like them.”

An African-American women who lives in the neighborhood said that Fair Foods is doing a great job. “The Washington Street market has a good selection and the service is excellent.”

Fair Foods (FF), the Boston-based food distribution organization, has operated the dollar bag program for 22 years. Fair Foods was founded by a group of Dorchester residents lead by Nancy Jamison. Nancy hails from Pennsylvania where she grew up on a farm. As the director of Fair Foods, she coordinates the distribution of six million pounds of surplus food to the poor families of Eastern Massachusetts.

FF relies on a network of food distributors some of which connected to Boston’s Haymarket outdoor food market. The selection of surplus foods varies due to the growing season and what is readily available that week. For example, in the summer strawberries and broccoli are more common, while in the winter more hearty vegetables like beets, celery, potatoes, winter squash and bananas are more readily available at the market locations.

Fair Foods’ Dollar Bag Program is a valuable resource for several reasons. First, FF is making available high quality food at reasonable prices to a wide population base, including low-income, retired and non-native American families as well as the middle class. Secondly, FF creates a market philosophy that is low-key-friendly and helpful, trying to satisfy all customer needs. This courteous approach contributes to a large repeat customer base (approximately 75% of customers). The customer response was very positive from all population groups served at the Washington Street location, indicative that customers are satisfied.

The Washington Street market serves diverse populations that are representative of the South End neighborhood of Boston. The DBP serves the low-income and retired residents of Cathedral Housing Project, along with a large non-native American population consisting of Europeans and Hispanics. Many middle-class individuals also shop at the market. The DBP meets the needs of the low-income population because of the price, without sacrificing quality or variety.

The South End DBP market serves a very important need in the supermarket-strapped neighborhoods of Boston. Because of city zoning regulations, supermarkets are fewer and further between than in sister cities like Cambridge and Quincy. Boston is one of the United States’ largest undeserved cities for food shopping. Aside from Haymarket, there are two major retail food chains, Stop and Shop and Shaws/Star. Then there’s Fair Foods, which has 22 Boston outdoor street market locations that Jason, the South End manager, estimates to serve 35 to 45,000 people, 52 weeks a year.

Fair Foods is an organization that merits the support of all Spare Change readers and residents of Boston, Quincy, Cambridge, Somerville and Revere. Buying produce and fruit from FF will ensure that they will be able to purchase food and sell it more people facing food insecurity.

Currently Fair Foods operates 22 dollar bag markets in Boston that are open Tuesday through Saturdays. They operate one market in Revere on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays, two markets in Somerville and one market in Quincy on the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays of each month. FF also partners with St. Paul ‘s Church on Mt Auburn Street to operate a dollar bag program for Cambridge residents every Saturday.

Robert Sondak is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.

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