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Planting local roots: Farming program provides Boston area teens summer work and sense of community

Sophie Leggett, left, community program and farms assistant, and 16-year-old Reuben Pomerantz bagged carrots for a customer, at a farmers’ market on Dudley Street and Blue Hill Avenue, in Boston.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Surrounded by crops of leeks, onions, and cucumbers they’ve grown themselves, some of the teenagers working at the West Cottage Farm in Boston’s Dudley neighborhood take a stroll through the raspberry patch on the grounds to pass the time.

“The darker ones are the sweetest,” said student farm worker Isis Moss Pinckney, after popping a few pieces of the red fruit she plucked from the bushes into her mouth before heading to the next part of her workday.

Moss Pinckney is one of 44 teens working at the farm through The Food Project this summer.

Student farm workers Isis Moss Pinckney, left, and London Burns snack on a few raspberries.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

What started in 1991 as a farming and hunger relief organization to ensure residents in the Boston area had access to fresh produce, The Food Project evolved over time to continue that mission and now having about 130 teens from greater Boston and North Shore neighborhoods to grow and distribute fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods with little access to fresh produce over the summer.

The 14- to 18-year-olds who get hired are often from neighborhoods near the organization’s farms. Of the youth working in both Boston and North Shore neighborhoods this summer, more than half are Black or Latino.

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Last week, the students got a taste of real farming conditions — as Boston’s heat wave pushed temperatures into the 90s — planting and harvesting in the morning, when the sun wasn’t as harsh. They spent the latter part of the day learning about how lead exposure can be detrimental to a community.

With farm locations in Dorchester, Lincoln, Lynn, and Wenham, the teens learn how to grow and harvest various fruits and vegetables, as well as host community gardening events, build raised bed gardens for residents, and run farmers markets in the communities with the produce they’ve grown.

John Wang , deputy director of The Food Project said this work gives the students the know-how to test out and staff the group’s markets and, in the future, the ability to work with community partners at a local soup kitchen or a food pantry. A lot of what the teens learn during their time with the organization can be transferable to other areas of work, especially since it includes building a community with each other, he said.

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“So getting a wide exposure around is not just the farming aspect, but what are these other areas of food systems’ work that we can show a more holistic picture,” he said, adding those different areas could be focused on the political or farming sides to any kind of food distribution.

The teens get an introduction to the farming on the so-called seed crew by learning how to weed, harvest, and work together as a team. They work 32 hours a week over the summer and get paid $14.25 an hour. If they continue with the program, they can progress to other levels, which take on more responsibility, such as doing peer leadership and running farmers’ markets the following summer or facilitating workshops throughout the school year.

Westwood High School student Melina Maxwell completed her time in the seed crew last summer and continued the work on Saturdays during the 2021-22 school year.

Now, as a peer leader, Maxwell checks in with her team, spends two and half hours farming, and oversees team building. The farm work is only half of the experience. The other half includes participating in workshops that teach the students various lessons like the history of redlining in Boston’s history and how it relates to the work they do, which is something that has stuck closely with her.

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The Food Project has helped her learn and understand how to take care of the people around her in Dorchester, where she was raised, especially since she knows some don’t have access to healthy and affordable produce, she said.

Melina Maxwell, center, is a Seed Crew peer leader. She visited the farmers’ market at Dudley Street and Blue Hill Avenue with the Seed Crew, after their workshop at The Food Project’s farm on West Cottage Street.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“You won’t find a Whole Foods out here,” said Maxwell. “Some people don’t have access to healthy and affordable vegetables. So therefore, our choices are to go to a corner store and get a bag of chips because that’s what’s accessible and cheapest for us. We work to give people access to the things that they need in order to be healthy.”

For Antonio Lopez, being a part of The Food Project was more than a work experience.

It was hard for the 18-year-old to find belonging throughout his time as a student at Catholic Memorial in West Roxbury, but through the farming program, he found his community.

“I felt like I really didn’t feel fit in there as much as I fit in here,” said Lopez. “This was a good environment to make friends that had similar experiences to me, and who were from similar neighborhoods as me. That was why I continued to stay.”

As he now heads to college, Lopez said he’s taking the time to think about what he wants to do next, and being a part of The Food Project has really helped him think about the world in a different way through being surrounded by people with various backgrounds, identities, and beliefs during his time in the program.

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“I think that this was really important for me, especially as a youth in my years where I developed a lot of my ideas and thought processes,” Lopez said, adding that he would like to come back as a volunteer and help the organization in any way he can.

“I think this has been powerful as an experience for me,” he said. “But it’s also important work that I think would be helpful for anyone to be a part of, regardless of the community it’s in [or] their background.”


Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.