A thick green field of bright rainbow chard gleams in the sun, backed by a chain-link fence and a row of triple-deckers. Tomato vines as tall as a fairy-tale beanstalk climb up an ingenious pulley system in a greenhouse flanked by garages and a disused basketball hoop. The vanguard of Greater Boston’s locavore movement may well be in places like this small Roxbury farm, where abandoned lots and pocket plots train tomorrow’s farmers, feed the hungry, and supply some of the city’s trendiest restaurants.
The Food Project, a Roxbury nonprofit in its 23rd growing season, operates all along the food chain, from seed to fork. It supplies nutritious, locally grown produce to an arc of consumers, from food-stamp recipients to urban epicures. And it touches on a full course of issues, from public health to community development to environmental justice. The result is a sort of completeness that mirrors the cycles of nature, even as it addresses mostly man-made ills.
Beginning Monday, 78 teenagers of all socio-economic backgrounds will start Seed Crew, a six-week youth development program that uses sustainable agriculture as its foundation. Kids from Lexington and Marblehead will join their peers from urban neighborhoods they may never have visited. They get a stipend to work mornings in the project’s eight growing sites in Greater Boston and the North Shore, from the Dudley Square greenhouse to a tiny plot in Lynn to a 31-acre farm in Lincoln. They help to raise the 250,000 pounds of tomatoes, squash, and field greens that will eventually be donated to hunger relief organizations, sold in neighborhood farmers markets, offered as Community Supported Agriculture shares, and supplied to restaurants like Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge or Hamersley’s in the South End.
Afternoons are spent in a robust curriculum of leadership and team-building workshops, plus discussions of food equity, environmental sustainability, and race, class, and gender roles. “We are very intentional about the youths we hire,” said Charu Gupta, communications manager at The Food Project. “We try to really get a final group that reflects the kind of thoughtful, productive, diverse community we want to see in the world.’’
Parts of Roxbury, especially around Dudley Square, are redeveloping rapidly, but the best urban planning now considers public health along with economic development. In Roxbury, 27 percent of adults are obese, with all the attendant problems; in Dorchester it’s 31 percent. According to the Boston Public Health Commission, these two neighborhoods have more fast food restaurants per capita than all other Boston neighborhoods combined. The need for alternatives is obvious.
Because prices in Greater Boston are higher than the national average, a federal food stamp dollar doesn’t stretch as far. So in 2008, The Food Project helped pilot a program to allow electronic benefit cards to be used at farmers markets, where the food is not only fresher, but often cheaper than what can be found in urban “food deserts.” The group also helps build raised beds and backyard gardens for low-income families.
Urban farming is a hot topic in depressed cities like Detroit, where vast swaths of vacant land are being repurposed. But leaders in Boston are also taking note. In December, the Boston Redevelopment Authority adopted Article 89 of the city zoning code, allowing for urban farms of up to one acre, rooftop gardening up to 5,000 square feet, and setting out conditions for soil safety, composting, and licensing.
Depsite its name, The Food Project is about more than food. On West Cottage Street in Roxbury, a 1.4 acre abandoned lot was an overgrown eyesore in dire need of development. But the most common solution — to create a park — was rejected by neighbors who knew that passive parks too often become dangerous gathering spots. An urban farm attracts more eyes and hands invested in the property, making it not just attractive but safe. “The common parlance around urban farming is that it’s an economic development program,” said Gupta. “What we have seen is more quality of life issues,” including beautification, public safety, and community pride.
Indeed, the square-block greenhouse in Dudley has become an ad hoc community center. Steamy and aromatic, dense with greenery, it’s where local kids and families like to hang out, watching their gardens grow.