Project Bread and Children’s HealthWatch, a non-partisan research and policy network headquartered at Boston Medical Center, release new research on food insecurity in East Boston and across the state of Massachusetts. Funded by Project Bread’s 2019 Walk for Hunger and The Boston Foundation, the findings not only strongly reinforce the role deep inequities in our system have in the disproportionately high rate of food insecurity experienced in Latinx communities, but also the power neighborhood bonds may have to help mitigate their effects.
We began this research in October 2019 in an effort to better understand how significant — or insignificant — a role systemic barriers, institutional racism, and discrimination played into a community’s experience of food insecurity. Despite being one of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, food insecurity and hunger and other economic hardships, including an inability to afford rent, utilities, child care, and health care have persisted in Massachusetts, disproportionately impacting communities of our state’s most marginalized residents. At the same time these data reveal a sense of confidence and strong relationships in the community. As we synthesize the findings of this study, it is impossible not to apply them to the intersecting ways in which the public health and economic climate have been so drastically impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has both illuminated and exacerbated pre-existing inequities faced by people of color, immigrant families, and those with fewer economic means. The hardships faced by these communities, including the Latinx community which we examine in this study, have only deepened as the crisis and its economic aftermath have unfolded.
As our state and nation look to address ongoing food insecurity, hunger, and other economic hardships — worsened in the wake of the pandemic — it is critical that the response be immediate and large-scale, but also informed by a critical equity approach. While this research was conducted prior to COVID-19, its findings are ever more important as food insecurity and unemployment skyrocket. This report aims to inform both short- and long-term responses to the circumstances gripping our nation, building on community strengths and providing an actionable roadmap for implementing necessary changes to policies, programs, and future research to ensure we meet the needs of every one of our state’s residents.
Our findings lay a critical foundation for further exploration to better identify community strengths and understand inequities in food insecurity and other economic hardships across the Commonwealth. The methods and ultimate recommendations of this project aim to chart a path for systemic change that mitigates bias rather than replicating it. We must recognize and uphold the right of economically- marginalized communities to have the resources they need to break down barriers and inform the best way to meet their own needs. We hope that these findings provide a guiding light to approach policy and systems change through a lens of both equity and action.
Food insecurity is shown to be harmful to people. In this sample, almost two-thirds of survey participants reported their household being food insecure.
In the context of the other findings of this survey, such as low levels of educational attainment, high levels of unemployment and associated economic hardships (housing instability, energy insecurity, forgone health care and child care constraints) participants are likely to have a hard time meeting all of their basic needs.
High rates of hardships are, on the one hand, not surprising and yet on the other provide a clear focus for intervention in East Boston. Given the majority of survey participants self-identified their race and ethnicity as Latinx and we know that many families in East Boston are also immigrants, we find it especially important that the recommended policies have a specific positive impact on Latinx immigrant families with children.
Economic hardships as well as experiences of discrimination were identified among survey participants who also reported being food insecure. While these data are recent, they highlight the legacy — and continued perpetuation — of discrimination in America, which are beliefs and behaviors based on common misconceptions that people with white skin-tone and European lineage are in some ways superior to people with black or brown skin-tones and African, Latinx, or native lineages, and therefore deserving of preferential treatment, status and privilege. While we must contend with this reality, name it and address it in genuine and meaningful ways to effect real and lasting change, we also must know that it is not easy to prevent or reverse the impact of discrimination.
Policies should be crafted that take concrete actions to increase equity not only along racial lines, but in all areas where parity is often denied to maintain the status quo of disenfranchisement, especially among those living in vulnerable conditions such as food insecurity.
Despite and even in the face of these challenges, it is crucial to recognize the strengths and perseverance that also came through clearly in these results. EBNHC survey participants possess a sense of neighborhood and community, sharing the conviction that their needs will be met through their commitment to one another. Thus, policies that sustain and uplift these vital bonds and further strengthen ideas of a common good are effective ways of making equity a reality.
This report demonstrates the ways in which racial and ethnic inequities drive adverse outcomes, including food insecurity and hunger in East Boston. Responding to the underlying causes of inequity will require structural changes across systems that recognize the ways in which institutions and policies interact in people's lives.
Promote systemic change that is responsive to historical racism and structural inequity.
Eliminate barriers to participation.
Expand eligibility to include more households facing food insecurity.
Increase benefit levels and flexibility in SNAP and reimbursement rates in child nutrition programs to support consistent access to a sufficient amount of healthy food.
Address other hardships faced by food-insecure households, such as limited access to housing, child care, utilities, transportation, health care, and employment.
Prioritize equity-based approaches in future research and data collections. Decolonize research by:
Food insecurity, along with several other hardships are rooted in poverty, which in turn are deeply entrenched in systemic and structural racism, ethnic and gender inequity, and disproportional distribution of income and wealth built into the political economy of the Commonwealth — a reflection of the country’s dynamics. To change the system, we need to advance policies that address these root causes, while investing in and improving outreach for safety-net programs, which are the best, though not a complete solution for rapidly responding to these realities.
Survey participants voiced at the focus groups and through their survey responses that they need support in understanding and applying for these programs. Given the majority of participants’ selfidentification as Latinx, that means less documentation burden and expansion of program eligibility, especially for immigrant families.
For these reasons, our policy recommendations address issues related not only to food access and program outreach, but also to issues such as wages, child care, employment, housing, and immigration within these topics. Massachusetts is a state that leads the way nationally in many regards, and still we have a long distance to travel in order to achieve a more just society in which every individual, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or country of origin can succeed.