When I teach people how to cook healthfully in Roxbury, the biggest problem is that they need food to cook. Access to decent produce in the city is poor; you need a car to get to it, or a steel will and big biceps to carry your bags home through the streets. Packaged food is convenient, close, and unhealthy: I know people who live alone in Roxbury and do their food shopping at Walgreens. Inner-city teens eat about 70 percent of their calories from vending machines, convenience stores, and fast food outlets.
The usual solution is to decry “food deserts” and hope that somehow more stores open in poorer neighborhoods. But there’s another way: Start growing our own. Food thinkers have started to reimagine our whole system for feeding ourselves, and Boston is long overdue to become part of the solution. Let’s call it Boston Grows.
The city can start with compost—and lots of it. Half of our trash is compostable and can be converted to soil with a more farsighted waste-management policy. Then it’s time to start urban farming. The city could start small, by expanding the number of community gardens and creating cooperatives that train interested residents in the latest techniques for small-scale farming. The Kellogg Foundation has successfully trained Southeast Asian residents of Holyoke, and our own City Growers in Boston have begun to train growers here as well.
Next, we can turn to the 800 available acres of abandoned, city-owned land in Boston. Fill it with the city’s new compost, and a network of people, farmers, and business owners can begin to collaborate on producing food in an entrepreneurial way. These plots can become beautiful spaces to rival Boston Garden, with fields of collards, tomatoes, basil, and sunflowers.
What could help offset the obesity epidemic better than physical activity and vegetables? “If kids grow kale, they’ll eat kale,” says Los Angeles urban-farm entrepreneur Ron Finley. And they’ll learn to feed themselves from their own kitchens—a change that will bring better health benefits than most things you can get from a doctor.
Didi Emmons is a Boston chef, author, and consultant.