As surprised as I was to see this in my neighborhood – with a Whole Foods and Shaw’s Supermarket less than a ½ mile from affordable housing complexes, it got me thinking of the economics of living below the poverty line, when a large grocery store nearby is not an option. Life is more expensive when you have less money. Let me give you a few examples.
If you do not own a car (because you cannot afford it), then you likely rely on public transportation to get to work. The commute can be doubled… cutting into the time that someone might otherwise get a second job, work longer hours at the first job, or even take a course to get a higher paying job. In essence, your earning potential is reduced because of the time spent commuting.
If you have limited income with children, childcare becomes a huge issue. My longtime assistant has a son with sickle-cell anemia. She could not maintain a regular job because she had no one to care for her son when he got sick, which was unfortunately too frequent.
If your income is below a certain level, it’s harder and more expensive to borrow money. When financing a car purchase, for example, (as many people at all income levels do), you will get a higher interest rate, and therefore higher payments. The less you can afford, the more you have to pay. Ironic, isn’t it?
And given the financial and time challenges, going back to school to get skills that would enable you to get a higher paying job is even more difficult.
For many low income, urban dwellers, the corner market is a primary source for groceries. Though reputed to be more expensive than the big chain supermarkets, if you don’t have a car to drive to a larger store, it can be the only option.
Where I live in Cambridge, there are plenty of larger grocery stores within walking distance to all levels of housing. Given the proximity of these larger grocery stores to the low-income housing, I wonder the efficacy of this theory.
To give you a sense of my neighborhood... Prospect Street separates the “high rent” neighborhoods from the “low rent”. I live one block into the low rent side. Just a few blocks away, on the high rent side of Prospect Street is the Whole Foods… One half mile down the road is a Shaw’s – the “conventional” supermarket chain of New England. In between are two public/affordable housing communities and several convenience stores (like Tedeschi where I used the ATM) and also a few small ethnic grocers.
I wanted to know… are the markets closer to affordable housing more expensive than the supermarkets several blocks farther away? On a rainy Monday afternoon, I criss-crossed my neighborhood to check prices on a sample market basket of eggs, milk, tomatoes and spaghetti.
Prices are based on the least expensive option in that category. With the tomatoes, packaging varied, so I converted all into a per pound price.
Distance to Affordable Housing #1: less than 1/10 of a mile
Distance to Affordable Housing #2: ½ mile.
Whole Milk: $3.29/gallon
Total Market-basket: $10.66
Distance to Affordable Housing #1: 240 feet
Distance to Affordable Housing #2: less than ½ mile.
Whole Milk: $4.99/gallon
Total Market-basket: $13.08
Distance to Affordable Housing #1: 3/10 mile
Distance to Affordable Housing #2: 2/10 mile.
Unlike Tedeschi, or other convenience stores, this really had a broad selection of fresh produce and dried goods for a small space - including spices, condiments, paper products and cleaning supplies. They even carried frozen fish. It seemed like someone could do a full grocery shopping here, unlike the Tedeschi’s which carried a very limited selection
Whole Milk: $4.29/gallon
Total Market-basket: $9.66
Distance to Affordable Housing #1: 4/10 mile
Distance to Affordable Housing #2: across the street
This resembled more of a convenience store than a small grocer, with a very limited selection of produce – only tomatoes, peppers, iceberg lettuce and celery. There were no prices on any of the produce or dairy products. Only the butter had a price label at $.99/stick or $3.96/pound.
Distance to Affordable Housing #1: .6 miles
Distance to Affordable Housing #2: less than ½ mile
Eggs: $1.99/dozen (as a side note, if you want to compare the price of cage-free eggs, they were 3.69/dozen – one dollar more than Whole Foods)
Whole Milk: $4.69/gallon
Total Market-basket: $10.24
I’m not surprised to see that the Tedeschi’s was significantly more expensive (though I wonder why anyone would shop there). But I was surprised to see how similar the prices were at Whole Foods to the other local options. And I’m pleased to see that the small Haitian Grocer with no more than 400 square feet of retail space (maybe smaller) was the most economical. And better still, they had a broad selection and were exceedingly close to affordable housing.
What have you noticed in your city and neighborhoods?