by Ona Balkus
People who have access to healthy food are more productive at work, more attentive in school, and less likely to need expensive healthcare. In his 20 years as Boston’s mayor, Thomas Menino took that principle to heart, investing significant resources and political will into meeting his goal “to create a civic environment that makes the healthier choice the easier choice in people’s lives, whether it’s schools, worksites, or other places in the community.”
As Menino steps down and Marty Walsh prepares to take office, Boston food advocates are uncertain how – or if – Walsh will continue and expand upon Menino’s impressive food policy legacy. Walsh, who ran on a labor and education platform, refers sparingly to food policy issues on his website and in interviews. Yet food policy aligns well with Walsh’s platform, and he should use Menino’s efforts as a springboard to further invest in improving Boston’s food system.
The following is a list of some of Menino’s top achievements in food policy and some suggestions for how the new Walsh administration can keep this legacy strong.
1. Creating the Office of Food Initiatives. In 2010, Menino created the first Boston Office of Food Initiatives (OFI). OFI works with the Boston Food Policy Council, a group of advocates from the government and non-profit sector, to meet Menino’s directives, which include: (1) increasing access to fresh, affordable foods, (2) expanding Boston’s capacity to produce, distribute, and consume local food; and (3) building a strong local food economy. OFI played a key role in implementing many of the policies described below.
2. Opening grocery stores in food deserts. At the outset of his tenure, Menino pledged to open more grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods where residents lacked access to stores with fresh produce and healthy options. Since then, Menino has aided in opening 26 grocery stores in urban areas of Boston. Specifically, Menino has used American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) and city funding to catalyze the opening of grocery stores, such as the Foodie’s Market in South Boston, which opened last February. Yet large parts of Mattapan, Roxbury, and Dorchester are still identified as food deserts according to the USDA Food Access Research Atlas. Investment in new innovative models of bringing affordable food into these communities is still needed.
3. Banning soda from schools and all city property. In 2004, Menino banned sodas from Boston public schools in an effort to curb childhood obesity rates. Sugary drinks like soda increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Given that these schools received funding from the soda companies, Menino’s policy met resistance from teachers, parents, and principals. But the ban seems to be working. Two years later, high school students reported drinking significantly less soda. In 2011, Menino went a step further, banning the sale, promotion, or advertising of soda on city property.
4. Doubling SNAP Benefits at farmers markets. Menino co-founded the Boston Bounty Bucks program with the Food Project in 2008. Now administered by the Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness, the Bounty Bucks program offers a dollar-for-dollar match up to $10 for individuals using their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) benefits at farmers markets every time the shopper visits the market. The program has grown rapidly, and in 2012, 18 farmers markets in Boston accepted Bounty Bucks, generating additional revenue of $170,000 for those markets. This program is important both to support local producers and also to make fruits and vegetables more affordable for SNAP participants.
5. Promoting urban agriculture. In 2010, Menino appointed the Mayor’s Urban Agriculture Working Group to assist the Boston Redevelopment Authority in creating new zoning laws that authorize urban agriculture. The groups collaborated to craft Article 89, which allows farms up to one acre to open and grow food in any part of the city (among other measures). If adopted, Article 89 will increase access to fresh produce for city residents, create jobs, and promote innovative models of food production, such as the Higher Ground Farm on the roof of the Boston Design Center in South Boston. While Article 89 will be a huge step forward, urban farmers will still need significant assistance from OFI to navigate through the complicated process of opening and operating their farms.
6. Backing food trucks. Menino worked closely with the City Council to pass the Mobile Food Truck Ordinance in April 2011, which authorized food trucks to operate on Boston streets. In just two years, the number of food trucks in Boston has expanded from 15 to 59. Food trucks have added over 100 jobs to the Boston economy, both to staff the trucks and then to staff the brick and mortar restaurants that some trucks open after their initial commercial success (including my personal favorite, Mei Mei Street Kitchen). Food trucks bring Bostonians out into the streets to eat communally in green spaces and sidewalks around the city. The Mayor’s Office, through OFI, continues to support new food truck entrepreneurs, providing training and guidance to help them through the permitting process.
7. Establishing universal free school breakfast and lunch. This school year, all Boston public school began to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of income level through the “Community Eligibility Option,” a federal program also in effect in 10 states and D.C. The Community Eligibility Option removes the qualifications required for reduced and free meals and thus eliminates parents’ burden to complete paperwork, removes the stigma associated with eating free meals, and streamlines the administrative process. In addition to these benefits, universal breakfast improves attendance, and leads to students being more attentive and engaged.
Walsh can expand on Menino’s groundbreaking food policy work and create his own legacy by making Boston’s food system even more vibrant and sustainable. Here’s how:
First, Walsh should maintain OFI and its staff, who have been instrumental in putting Menino’s food policy directives into action. Walsh should capitalize on the existing infrastructure Menino created to move food policy forward, and continue to use these critical resources. Second, Walsh should prioritize further decreasing the number of food deserts within city limits by promoting both permanent grocery stores and mobile grocery stores. Simultaneously, Walsh should invest in infrastructure improvements, such as refrigerators and coolers, to enable corner stores to carry fresh produce. Third, Walsh should further protect children from unhealthy foods during the school day by advocating for a zoning ordinance banning fast food outlets from 500 feet around public schools, following the lead of Detroit. Consistent with Walsh’s campaign goal to improve public education in Boston, ensuring that students learn in a healthy environment is an integral component to meeting his goal.
Walsh seems to take pride in Boston’s reputation as a hub for innovation, and he should realize that innovative solutions to food and agricultural problems are essential to the future economic viability and livability of our city. Finally, Walsh must recognize that access to healthy food for all Boston communities will strengthen our workforce and improve educational outcomes, and thus is integral to achieving the goals on which he campaigned.
*This piece was originally published on the policy blog Bridge 50.
The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Center for Health Law & Policy Innovation or Harvard Law School. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.