Community-supported agriculture programs [CSAs], small farms from which people buy "shares" in exchange for weekly boxes of produce, have become popular over the last 10 years, fueling the local food movement's momentum.

But that movement — young as it is — is changing. World Peas CSA in Lowell is barely breaking even, according to Jennifer Hashley, who helps run it as director of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, an initiative of Tufts University. Hashley says CSAs are becoming a victim of the local food movement’s success. With more people wanting to buy local, more farmers markets have popped up and some mainstream supermarkets have gotten in on the local food action.

"That’s when there’s money to be made in capitalizing on that interest," Hashley said. "Everybody starts coming to the table."

The problem is those businesses aren’t usually found in lower-income areas.

"That’s definitely a huge critique of the local food movement," Hashley said. "I think that a lot of people feel like it’s exclusive, more expensive, catering to a particular subset of the population."

To explore the constellation of issues that revolve around the food we eat, WGBH News has partnered with The American Academy of Arts and Sciences to produce a special five-part series. This is the fourth installment.

Studies seem to support that critique, showing that if you’re poor, you’re much more likely to eat less nutritious food and be obese. Harvard University nutritionist Walter Willett says only some people are eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

"That improvement has been almost entirely in people with upper incomes and very minimal improvement in people with low incomes," Willett said. "So the gap has about doubled over the last 12 years."

That’s not to say low-income areas have been left out of the local food movement entirely. There are more grocery stores and farmers markets in these places than there used to be. But the price of fresh food is still often higher than processed stuff. So there are a lot of ideas about bringing produce prices down. One joint federal and state initiative would give people on food stamps a dollar for every dollar they spend on local produce.

Bridging The Gap

Existing programs like that in Boston and Lynn give low-income people coupons to buy from farmers markets.

Patricia Spence, executive director of the Urban Farming Institute in Roxbury, says she sees people come into farmers markets in Mattapan with those coupons all the time.

"It’s clear that without those coupons, and that assistance that is out there right now for families, we might never see them," she said. "And they might not have the opportunity to buy the freshest food that they can buy."

But there’s an ongoing debate about these programs. People like Metropolitan Area Planning Council Project Manager Winton Pitcoff say making food less expensive isn’t a realistic long-term solution. Pitcoff is managing the effort to create a new state food plan that’ll be released later this month.

"Consumers have to be able to afford food, and you don’t do that by somehow artificially making that food cheaper," he said. "You do that by making people have a higher standard of living."

Pitcoff says when people have to put their salaries towards things like rising energy or transportation costs, there’s less cash for healthy food. So the new state plan recommends things like adopting a living wage and expanding tax credits that allow low-income families to keep more of their take-home pay. Then it’ll be up to individual families to decide for themselves whether fresh, local food is worth the cost, according to David Tilman, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota.

"We’re going to have to struggle and find ways that people decide to change what they’re doing, because they decide something else is better for them because it tastes better," Tilman said.

People have to want fresh food more than they want high-sugar or high-salt processed products that are easier to prepare and have longer shelf lives, Tilman says.

"How do we change human behavior in a way that is ultimately voluntary, has to be something that people will realize is important, people will like it, they’ll be happy they’re doing it?" he said. "How we do that is the biggest challenge we face.”

It’s a challenge Vanessa LaBranche, formerly an accountant, now an educator, is taking on. LeBranche teaches people to cook on a budget, and on this night her goal is just to get people to at least try cooking healthy, focusing on vegetables.

"Some people don’t even like vegetables at all," she said.

LaBranche usually teaches her classes at Haley House Bakery Café in Roxbury, where the students are low-income. She knows first-hand that you not only have to make fresh food available to people, you also have to make sure they know what to do with it. LaBranche grew up in Roxbury and Dorchester, where her family almost never ate fresh food.

La Branche recently taught for the first time downtown at the new Boston Public Market, where everything is local.

After class, LaBranche said it’s not easy to get low-income people to eat fresh food — never mind local food — but it is possible. In the audience is a living example – her sister, Dorothy LaBranche, who says she used to eat mostly processed food, until she became overweight and was diagnosed with diabetes.

"The doctors were amazed at how quickly I got better," she said. "I’m not on medication for it, because I’ve controlled my diet. And my sister helped me through that.”

Dorothy says she cooks everything from scratch now, with fresh, in-season ingredients — and it’s actually cheaper. Local food doesn’t have to be some elite thing, she says — and she’s living proof.