Modern Day Canaries in the Coal Mine: Rising Food Insecurity among Boston Families

Ashley O (40)Despite the nation’s continued anemic recovery from the Great Recession, Boston, Massachusetts has a strong reputation as a thriving urban hub for innovation in education, healthcare, scientific research and global business. And while Boston may be one of the healthiest cities in America, like it or not, Boston is also one of the four U.S. cities home to the greatest income inequality, where the average income of the richest Boston households ($220,000 per year) is at least 15 times the earnings of the poorest 20 percent (less than $15,000 per year).

What does such a stark income gap really mean for families in Boston? Unfortunately, this Dickensian “tale of two cities” plays itself out daily in the lives of families facing economic hardships. While more than 8,000 brand-new luxury apartments are expected to be built in Boston during the next three years, as of March 2014, there were approximately 1,987 homeless families with children and pregnant women being placed in motels because the Massachusetts’ Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program is bursting at the seams.

Juell, a mother of two from Boston, was displaced from her home in December after the pipes in her apartment burst from the winter’s frigid temperatures. With nowhere else to go, and the EA shelter system full, Juell had to relocate to a hotel room miles from her neighborhood and her daughters’ elementary school. Juell’s youngest daughter has severe food allergies (wheat, eggs, and tree nuts) and requires a special diet. Imagine shopping for and feeding a growing family while living in a motel room equipped with only a microwave and mini-fridge and no kitchen or food prep area. This is no vacation. Unlike many families in motels who can spend more than a year in limbo, luckily, Juell was able to access a rental voucher in February and has since moved with her children into an apartment.

Juell is not alone in Boston – many families, homeless or not, face the daily challenge of juggling paying bills for basic needs on budgets that are stretched too thin.  On April 16th, Children’s HealthWatch will release a new policy brief that reveals between 2006 and 2012, the prevalence of families with young children that do not have enough money to buy the food they need (also known as food insecurity) has grown at a rate three times as fast as than the national average. A family’s ability to buy enough healthful food serves as a critical vital sign that provides important information on mothers’ and children’s health risks, and family risk for other hardships, like unstable housing or going without heat.

Food insecurity affects the whole family – we know that parents try hard to shield their children from hardship, often going without so that their children can eat.  This takes a steep toll on their personal well-being; we found that food-insecure mothers in Boston were at increased risk of being in poor physical and mental health.  Children weren’t spared, suffering harm to their health and development.

How can we improve and sustain the health, vitality and quality of life for all Bostonians, especially those experiencing economic hardship?  Fortunately, there are good-sense policy solutions available to us right now:

Access – To maximize its potential impact, we need to ensure those eligible to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program), are able to access SNAP and receive the full amount of benefits for which they are eligible.

Stability – Increased funding for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program would stabilize eligible families, ensuring that they can afford safe and secure housing as well as enough, and nutritious food.

Economic Mobility – Increasing Massachusetts’ minimum wage and giving workers a raise will help low-income families’ financial well-being and prevent downward economic mobility.

Before we can truly embody the notion that “Boston stands as one” and before every child is able to fulfill his or her potential as a creative and productive member of society, we need to confront the reality of growing inequality. Our neighbors, many of whom work full-time yet still struggle to make ends meet, should not have to choose between putting food on the table, paying rent, and heating their homes. Food insecurity is an issue that affects us all, and what’s good for the future of families with young children is good for the future of Boston.


JOIN: Children’s HealthWatch and other policy experts to learn more about the research on maternal and child health and current policy implications for Massachusetts on April 16th at 10am EST.

Click here to RSVP for the webinar. Information on how to attend will be sent out in advance of the presentation.

Photo credit: Ashley O., Witness to Hunger