The lack of purchasing power among low-income families and individuals is a fundamental barrier to increasing the consumption of healthy foods, including those that are produced locally. Improving consumer purchasing power is also critical to reducing food insecurity in Massachusetts, which stands at 11.9 percent for all residents and 16.6 percent among children.1
Wages in Massachusetts have stagnated for low-income families, eroding household purchasing power for food and other necessities. Further, the overall cost of living in Massachusetts is 32 percent higher than the national average; while only 16 percent higher than average for groceries, it is 26 percent higher for housing based on the median monthly housing costs, typically one of the biggest portions of a household budget.2 Yet the eligibility thresholds for nutrition assistance programs, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are not adjusted to account for state-by-state income and cost of living differences.3 Food insecurity today is 71 percent higher in Massachusetts than it was a decade ago,4 and household income is a critical factor in food security. Food insecurity among households in the State living below the federal poverty line is 35.1 percent, while only 4.9 percent for households earning 185 percent or more of the federal poverty level.5
Income limitations force families to make trade-offs that have secondary consequences for personal health and include poor nutrition, exposure to extreme heat or cold, housing instability, and the foregoing of medical care and medications. Examples include low-income families who eat less during seasonal spikes in home energy bills, and seniors in low-income households who go hungry in the days prior to the arrival of their monthly Social Security check.6,7,8
For many consumers, local produce, and other foods can be more expensive (or perceived to be) than comparable conventionally sourced or processed grocery items. Low-income families and individuals have fewer dollars available for food purchases. Indeed, families that earn less than $20,000 a year spend one-third or more of their income on food, as compared to the national average of about ten percent (for all families).9 Further, conversations during the planning process revealed that many low-income consumers believe that local food is for the affluent. As a consequence, many low-income families may avoid buying fresh produce at stores or farmers markets that are known for carrying local foods. - This is despite the fact that local produce in Massachusetts generally costs about the same as other supermarket produce.
Ensuring everyone has access to healthy food, and especially food grown and raised in Massachusetts will require several strategies, but central among them will be ensuring that individuals have the financial means to make decisions about the food they eat. Increasing household buying power, so that families do not have to choose between food and other necessities is one of the most powerful long term approaches to enabling low-income families and individuals to purchase more healthy food.