Two-thirds of Harvard sophomores, juniors, and seniors live in a food desert. According to the Department of Agriculture, every River House except Adams House lies in what is defined as a “low-income census tract where a significant number or share of residents is more than a half mile ... from the nearest supermarket.” Three such census tracts exist in Cambridge, and the campus of MIT also includes one, as does Boston University’s East Campus across the river.
Most Harvard students experience this area quite differently. As sociology graduate student Caitlin Daniel noted in an interview on the topic, “even people living in the same neighborhood can experience access very differently, depending on where their daily routines bring them … depending on whether they have reliable access to a vehicle, depending on what their budget is.” The river isn’t a “low-access zone” for anyone with a Harvard meal plan when dining halls are open, and it makes sense that we don’t buy enough food to support a local supermarket. It is not the fault of individual students that these food deserts exist on and near our campus, but the fact remains that around the city, living next to university students correlates with a lower level of access to affordable food.
The purchasing power of Harvard students plays a substantial role in shaping the businesses around us, but it is often easier to diagnose and bemoan this problem than to change our behavior. This is particularly true in Harvard Square. Residents, including Harvard affiliates, petitioned developers to spare the Curious George store and sought to block the proposed &pizza location across the street. The Crimson’s Editorial Board has cited both of these debates in placing responsibility for changes in the Square broadly outside of the control of students. The piece blames the growth of expensive cafés on tourists seeking “high-end food to supplement their sightseeing” and the closure on Schoenhof's Foreign Books on “high rents,” only briefly mentioning Tatte’s popularity among many Harvard students and completely ignoring that Schoenhof’s paid their rising rents to the Spee Club.
One notable point is missing from campus discourse about Square business: The outsize role that Harvard affiliates play in determining the business landscape here. A student seeking high-end food to supplement their p-setting in Tatte is no less culpable, and far less hypothetical, than the Editorial Board’s imagined tourist. Our patterns of consumption drive El Jefe’s to stay open until four in the morning, and businesses spend substantial time and money competing for market share among undergraduates. As uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge, Harvard students are a powerful base of customers for many businesses in Harvard Square, and bear substantial responsibility for its composition.
The new—and high-priced—Blue Bottle Coffee site illustrates many of these dynamics. In the same editorial condemning rising prices in Square business, the Editorial Board wrote that “Blue Bottle Coffee, a cafe specializing single-origin coffee, announced its arrival in the Square last December; one undergraduate described the news ‘yet another bougie addition to Harvard Square.’” While the Ed Board portrays this undergraduate as a powerless onlooker to a changing Square, the full quote from the student states, “I’m excited for yet another bougie addition to Harvard Square.” This enthusiasm is mirrored by the excitement of undergraduates who flocked to Blue Bottle on its opening day and the glowing review published three days later.
We can’t change every consumption pattern that makes the Square less accessible. Harvard’s mandatory meal plan makes it impossible for almost everyone to switch all of our purchasing to local grocery stores and aim to eliminate our food desert. But we can acknowledge the power and privilege that students have to shape Harvard Square. There is absolutely nothing wrong with purchasing and enjoying expensive food, but people who do so should be cognizant of the economic power they wield. By and large, Harvard students are drivers, not observers, of the Square’s gentrification.
If we truly believe that more businesses should be locally owned and operated and that their proprietors should reflect the diversity of race, gender, and disability of the city that hosts us, we should shop according to the Cambridge Diversity Directory, which includes a supermarket and several restaurants, bakeries, and cafés within one T stop of Harvard Square. If we believe that businesses should treat their workers fairly, we should shop more at local businesses dedicated to this practice, like the Just Crust pizzeria that was forced to close last year, and less at online retail giants with documented labor abuses. We should even be willing to boycott businesses that don’t meet our moral standards, as students did with the Just Crust’s predecessor in 2011. If the students who live here part-time believe that year-round Cantabrigians should have affordable retail choices, then they should actively support them, for even existing affordable supermarkets that support residents living near college campuses are vulnerable to low demand.
Consumption choices are a reflection of buyers’ values, and Harvard Square is largely a reflection of such choices made by Harvard students. If you’re uncomfortable with what you see, don’t blame tourists. Buy from local, ethical, and affordable businesses, ask at the counter whether that business donates unused food, and join the Student Labor Action Movement’s boycotts of irresponsible businesses. Align your consumption with your values.
Will H. MacArthur ’20 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.