On a cold December evening, the new restaurant Fresh Food Generation glows like a ray of sunshine on Dorchester’s Talbot Avenue. The front of the building is a joyful yellow, the neon script in the window spelling out “Farm to Plate Caribbean American” in green, gold, and red. Inside, potted plants grow on shelves, on walls, alongside bottles of locally made hot sauce and a collection of cookbooks celebrating Black agriculture and cuisine. The menu is full of comfort food and Caribbean flavors, offering empanadas, jerk chicken, and red bean stew with curry and coconut milk; herbed home fries, mac and cheese, and grass-fed burgers. There are also vegetables: a kale salad with squash, toasted quinoa, and red onion; a mouth-warming slaw spiked with ginger. From fish to produce, the ingredients are often local. Even the dressing on the kale salad is made with Roxbury honey from the Best Bees Company.
The Codman Square restaurant opened last month, but the seeds for it were planted a decade ago, when Cassandria Campbell approached Jackson Renshaw about starting a food truck.
The two knew each other from their days working at local nonprofit the Food Project, which brings together youth leadership and sustainable agriculture. “It was formative for me in that I hadn’t realized growing food was a career path and feeding people was a career path,” says Renshaw, who went on to study agriculture at the University of Vermont. Campbell, whose parents are Jamaican, grew up in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. She attended Swarthmore and MIT, where she got her master’s in urban planning. Then, in her early 20s, she moved back to Roxbury and found there weren’t many places in the area to get a quick, healthy, delicious meal. One notable exception was the nonprofit Haley House, with its bakery and cafe serving the community in Nubian Square. Campbell found the model inspiring.
“I really felt there needed to be more of that, and not just in the nonprofit realm. In the private sector there needed to be those options, just like there are in other neighborhoods,” she says. “These are beautiful neighborhoods and people deserve to be able to walk down the street and get something good to eat. If I have kids, I want them to be able to do the same.” In 2011, Boston’s food truck program was just getting started. “‘Wouldn’t it be great if a food truck could provide that healthier food option, sourced locally, and create jobs?’ That thought is really where the journey started,” Campbell says.
Renshaw had been working on small organic farms throughout New England. “I saw that the majority of the food was still going to fine dining and CSAs and suburban neighborhoods. There’s both the cost and geographic barriers to access to that food. When Cassandria approached me with the idea for a food truck that serves the neighborhoods farm-to-plate food, I thought it was a brilliant idea for overcoming a lot of those barriers.”
The two began fundraising and learning the business. In 2015, the Fresh Food Generation food truck hit the road. Campbell and Renshaw did everything themselves, with family members pitching in as occasional volunteers. Now Fresh Food Generation has grown to a team of about 15 people, including head chef Maux Morgan, who previously worked at restaurants including Mida and The Haven. Staff members have ties to Jamaica, Montserrat, Haiti, and the South, and the menu is an extension of their backgrounds. In addition to the truck, Fresh Food Generation does catering, events, and home delivery, the last a pandemic addition. It also ships food nationally via online company Goldbelly. And, now, there is the restaurant too.
The brick-and-mortar Fresh Food Generation is a culmination of Campbell’s and Renshaw’s experiences and interests. A mural on the wall maps the neighborhood in yellow, with a bright green “FFG” logo sprouting leaves. The theme for the decor is “gardens and graffiti,” a nod to the artists who have inspired them and the organizations that have shaped them. These include the Food Project and the nearby Urban Farming Institute, both of which they work with, along with other small area farms.
“It’s a very comfortable space to be in, very welcoming, and it invites all walks in to enjoy a meal that’s affordable and made with love and intention. It feels great to be able to take care of people that way,” Renshaw says.
For Campbell, it’s also a homecoming. She went to preschool and learned to swim at the Lee School just a few feet away. “This neighborhood is near and dear to my heart. I have a lot of childhood memories. I think back on that time — my mom was a new American and raising a young girl in Dorchester. I would have never thought that I would have a restaurant next door. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
And Codman Square has embraced them. The neighborhood is home to a thriving farmers’ market, the Codman Square Health Center, and active local organizations and associations. Fresh Food Generation seems a natural fit. The restaurant anchors an apartment building; landlord and developer Travis Lee held a community competition for the space, and Fresh Food Generation was the neighborhood’s choice, beating out seven other businesses.
Campbell and Renshaw didn’t do it alone, they are quick to point out. They had guidance from mentors like longtime Haley House executive director Bing Broderick, Jen Faigel of food-business incubator CommonWealth Kitchen, and Glynn Lloyd of City Fresh Foods and the Foundation for Business Equity. “Fresh Food Generation is the result of a lot of people believing in the vision we had and being willing to throw their time and energy and advice behind it,” Renshaw says.
Now comes the fun part: welcoming in and feeding the community. Customers thus far have been a mix — people who have followed the truck for years, people who never heard of Fresh Food Generation before and are curious about all the new activity. A month in, things are starting to take shape. “We had a moment on Saturday where an old customer paid for the food of a new customer,” Campbell says. “There was hugging involved, and expressions of gratitude. That is the exact type of environment we are trying to create.”
185 Talbot Ave., Codman Square, Dorchester, 617-362-8995, www.freshfoodgeneration.com.