If a large storm hits Boston, inner city residents in communities like Dorchester, East Boston and Roxbury may have a particularly difficult time accessing food.
A recent study shows Boston’s food system — from distribution to the neighborhood corner store — is vulnerable to natural disaster.
“Resilience requires a lot of planning,” said Austin Nijhuis, senior research analyst with Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a Boston-based research and strategy nonprofit organization.
Hurricane Sandy narrowly missed Boston in 2012, but city leaders realized Boston could face a natural disaster of similar scale one day. They contracted ICIC in 2014 to look at how resilient the city’s food system would be — in other words, how quickly the food system could return to “normal” after a natural disaster.
A food system involves everything from production and packaging to transportation of food to retail stores or food banks where residents buy it, said Liz Holden, research and communications associate for ICIC, who presented their findings to a group of students and faculty at Tufts University Friday afternoon.
“Few of what is sold in Boston is made here,” Nijhuis said.
The majority of Bostonians’ food comes from California, Arizona and parts of the Midwest, Nijhuis said, which means a storm that hits in Boston will not affect the food residents normally eat.
“The real problem is going to be getting it to Boston,” Nijhuis said.
About 94 percent of Boston’s food is transported by truck, Nijhuis, mostly to a couple of key distribution centers north and south of the city owned by Shaw’s Markets and Stop and Shop.
From there, food is usually trucked to grocery stores and neighborhood corner stores through complex pathways through the city.
Inclement weather could shut down roads and stores that are in a floodplain, Nijhuis said.
After mapping out all the stores in the Greater Boston Area, researchers found communities like Dorchester, Roxbury and East Boston had higher shares of stores that were in vulnerable spots and a higher number of children in school.
As it stands — without a natural disaster — stores in these neighborhoods already weren’t able to meet the existing population’s demand, Nijhuis said.
Dorchester, with a population of more than 114,000, has about five groceries stores — or 0.04 per 1,000 people — and about 47 corner stores — about 0.41 per 1,000 people, according to ICIC’s report. About 17.4 percent of Dorchester’s population is school-aged, according to the report.
Nijhuis added that many residents in these inner city neighborhoods are further away from stores, have fewer options for food and have fewer options than they can likely afford.
“Our worry is that: what happens during a natural disaster?” he said. “Some of these (stores) don’t have a resiliency plan in place,” such as a back-up generator.
Milk supply is especially vulnerable, ICIC found, if a hurricane disrupts the 12 processing plants within 75 miles of Boston that supply most of the city’s milk.
“We need to diversify our milk supply,” Nijhuis said.
The city needs to invest in critical resilience infrastructure, from buildings to roads, Holden said, as well as improve coordination between public and private entities when it comes to food.
Preparing for a disaster that may or may not happen seems like a low priority both for officials and for store owners, but the next big storm could be just around the corner — and this one could hit Boston.
“Boston has had lots of close calls,” Holden said.