The teenage sleuths of Hyde Square are at it again.
Six years after prompting TD Garden to donate $1.65 million for a skating rink after discovering the complex failed to hold fund-raisers for local recreation programs as required by state law, they have another behemoth in their sights: Stop & Shop.
In researching how inflation affects low-income families, youth organizers with the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain learned that a grocery cart of items at their local Stop & Shop cost $34 more than the same products at the chain’s store in suburban Dedham.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that there’s an 18 percent price difference,” said Zaniyah Wade, 15, a sophomore at Margarita Muñiz Academy and member of the Hyde Square group.
On the same day in March, about a dozen teens made nearly identical grocery runs at Stop & Shop stores in Jamaica Plain by the Mildred C. Hailey housing complex in Jackson Square, and in Dedham, a suburb south of Boston. Because the prices of staples like fruits and veggies fluctuate, and they needed to buy things they’d probaby eat, the teens’ purchases were heavy on the frozen food.
Prices for Stop & Shop crinkle-cut French fries, for instance, were 90 cents more in Jamaica Plain. At the Jamaica Plain store, a box of Bubba’s turkey burgers was $11.49, compared to $9.49, a quart of Brigham’s vanilla ice cream was 90 cents more, while Smithfield bacon was two dollars more. A few items, such as a frozen box of Ellio’s pizza, were priced the same at both stores.
(Some items were not in stock so they bought comparable products.)
Officials from Stop & Shop — a Quincy-based corporation whose parent company, Ahold Delhaize, reported nearly $59 billion in US net sales in 2022 — would not comment for this article.
Many of the Hyde Square teens have watched their parents or caretakers toil to make ends meet, and felt cheated to learn their families and others are paying more for groceries than shoppers in a more well-to-do town.
“Finding this out means that we’ve had our money stolen, that we’ve been ripped off,” said Danny Vargas, 18, one of the sleuths, who is graduating from City on a Hill Charter Public School this month. “It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
The students summarized their research in a five-page report, and are contemplating how to get the mammoth grocery chain to price its products more equitably.
Ken Tangvik, Hyde Square Task Force’s senior manager of organizing and engagement, said he reached out to the corporation in April to present the group’s findings, and requested a meeting to discuss food pricing store-to-store.
A few days later, the company sent this response:
“Unfortunately, we cannot respond to all the questions about our operations, products and services that we receive as it is important that our focus remains on our business and serving our customers,” a customer care representative wrote in an e-mail that Tangvik shared with the Globe. “Additionally, the information requested or sought is often proprietary … good luck with your project.”
“People think that just because we’re young, we do not know what we’re talking about,” said Dereck Medina, 15, a freshman at Margarita Muñiz Academy, of Stop & Shop’s response. As if, “we do not go through stress ... or tough times,” he said.
The students wrote in their report that, if a household spends $300 on groceries weekly, it would be spending $2,808 per year more at the Jamaica Plain store than at the Dedham one. Euniss Yoyo, 15, a Hyde Park native who attends Canton High School, said that money is needed elsewhere.
“That’s $2,000 of college tuition, $2,000 on your bills, $2,000 that could go towards building generational wealth,” Yoyo said. “That’s $2,000 essentially being robbed of this community.”
The youth are following in the footsteps of the Hyde Square Task Force teenagers who, in 2017, sent TD Garden executives and state officials scrambling to answer why they never held regular fund-raisers for recreations programs, as required under a state law that allowed the professional sports arena to be built. The teens estimated that the failure to host three fund-raisers a year, as required by the law, resulted in a loss of more than $13 million for needed youth programs.
The Jackson Square store is located at 301 Centre St. in Boston’s Latin Quarter Cultural District, one of the few pockets in Boston that has withstood gentrification. It is adjacent to the Hailey complex, one of the Boston Housing Authority’s largest housing developments. Bodegas and restaurants offering Latin American fare line this busy section of Centre Street.
The median household income for the census tract, encompassing about 4,000 residents, is $25,580. Around two thirds of homes within the census track earn less than $50,000 a year. Half of the residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, and 36 percent are Black. One in 10 residents are white, and three percent are Asian.
Meanwhile, the Stop & Shop in Dedham is located in a strip mall on a crowded stretch of Providence Highway, next to other retail giants including DICK’S Sporting Goods, Lowe’s, and Five Below. In Dedham, median household income is $108,047, according to census data, with 22 percent of households making less than $50,000 annually.
About 80 percent of Dedham residents are white non-Hispanic. Non-Hispanic Black residents and Latinos each make up 8 percent of the population, Asian and Pacific Islanders 3 percent, and people identifying as two or more races about 5 percent.
When drafting the report, the teens tried to come up with their own explanation for the price disparity. So Emmanuel Vargas, 15, a freshman at Dearborn STEM Academy ― no relation to Danny Vargas ― consulted online marketplace LoopNet for property lease rates in the two areas. Maybe Jamaica Plain retail space is more expensive, they thought.
Consumer experts say the issue is more nuanced, and many factors can shape a store’s operating costs, which in turn affect the price. Edgar Dworsky, the Somerville-based founder and editor of the guide Consumer World, said for instance that retailers might raise prices at certain locations to make up for rent, security, and utilities.
“It’s really hard to make a concrete or definitive statement,” Dworsky said.
Sean Cash, an economist at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, said the higher prices in low-income communities may not necessarily indicate malicious intent; instead, he said, stores in such areas could face lower sales that would compel companies to charge more to make up the difference.
“A lot of stores are trying to do the right thing, but you can’t do it if you’re losing money,” Cash said.
But for these teens, every penny counts. Danny Vargas has lived in the nearby Hailey housing development for most of his life and has wandered the Stop & Shop’s aisles many times.
“We’ve often had to rely on food stamps because the money wasn’t abundant,” Danny Vargas said. “Or sometimes, there would be a week where there wasn’t really food in the fridge for us.”
Experts say consumers do have some power in the situation. Dworsky said shoppers can fight back with “comparison shopping,” where they compare different outlet prices for the same product and purchase accordingly.
Medina, the Margarita Muñiz Academy freshman, said his parents were so angry to learn of his research that they now drive to America’s Food Basket of Hyde Park, where it’s “a little more affordable.”
But still, that costs more in time and transportation, the students noted. More equitable prices would be huge for Medina’s family “because we wouldn’t have to go so far away to get groceries every single month,” he said.