Farm that once benefited the homeless now run by fast-food chain
Before it was abandoned, when hundreds of homeless people, addicts, and troubled teens slept there every night, the island in Boston Harbor had a thriving farm that produced thousands of pounds of organically grown vegetables, herbs, eggs, honey, and more.
When engineers condemned the old, rickety bridge to Long Island in 2014, police ordered everyone to leave immediately. The managers of the city-run farm took what they could, even enlisting Fire Department trainees to carry their chickens over the bridge. But they were forced to leave rows of crops rotting on the vine.
They pleaded with city officials to keep the farm going, but were told they had to abandon carefully tended crops from arugula to zucchini, just as the shelters and recovery programs were forced to leave everything behind.
Now, nearly two years after Long Island became a veritable ghost town in a few hours, the farm is reopening. But this time, rather than providing fresh produce exclusively for the homeless and programs for the needy, the land is being tilled by a fast-food company.
The company plans to use a quarter of the produce it grows in its restaurants, with the rest slated for Camp Harbor View, a summer program for some 900 adolescents from Boston’s at-risk neighborhoods.
The decision to allow the b.good restaurant chain to take over Boston’s only city-owned farm — at no cost, and without seeking other proposals — has enraged its former managers, who view the new arrangement as a violation of the public trust and a waste of scarce urban community farmland.
“This is extremely upsetting and concerning,” said Sara Riegler, the farm’s assistant manager, who lost her job after it closed. “This was clearly a backdoor deal, or the city would have had multiple proposals.”
Riegler said she and others have repeatedly urged the city to reopen the farm, which supplied about 25,000 pounds of produce each year while providing job-training services to the homeless and those in recovery.
“We had greenhouses, a tractor, a chicken coop, and a lot of other equipment there that was paid for by a public-private partnership to benefit the homeless,” she said. “I don’t think any of that should go to a for-profit company. This is city land.”
City officials said the Boston-based company, whose owners learned about the farm from the advertising mogul-turned-philanthropist Jack Connors, can use the land as it sees fit for the next two growing seasons. At the end of next year, the city will consider other proposals from the public about how to use the land.
City officials say the agreement also gives them more time to figure out the future of the farm and the rest of the 225-acre island.
They still haven’t decided what to do with all the vacant buildings or whether it’s worth rebuilding the bridge to the island, which would cost an estimated $90 million. Last year, the city spent $17 million to tear down the bridge and has budgeted $1.6 million for maintenance on the island in the upcoming fiscal year.
“While we determine if a bridge is a cost-effective option for the city, the two-year pilot license agreement with b. good is an opportunity that will reinvest in the farmland for future use, and provide Camp Harbor View’s campers with fresh food and lessons on urban agriculture, healthy eating, and community collaboration,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement.
It’s unclear, however, how much the campers will benefit, at least this year. The company doesn’t expect to have anything to harvest until the end of August at the soonest, just as the camp closes for the season.
Company officials also said they intend to grow the produce most used at their restaurants — some 40,000 pounds of kale, beets, cabbage, and other vegetables — rather than basing their choice of crops on the community’s needs.
“It’s heartbreaking what’s happening,” said Elissa Nabozny, a former volunteer on the farm.
Nabozny said she doesn’t understand why the city didn’t allow its employees, or a nonprofit group devoted to the homeless, to use the 2.5 acres of farmland. The farm used to be run by Serving Ourselves, a city job-training program for the homeless that focused on agriculture.
Among those potentially interested in the farm is ReVision Urban Farm in Dorchester, part of one of the recovery centers that lost its program on Long Island two years ago.
“It’s a shame that the homeless population will no longer have access to the produce and the job-training programs at the farm,” said Shani Fletcher, who manages the farm. “That’s really a big loss.”
The idea for b.good to take over the farm came from Connors, who has a close relationship with Walsh. Last December, Jon Olinto, one of the owners of b.good, dropped by Connors’s office with a gift: kale that the company had grown in a special container beneath Interstate 93.
Connors mentioned there was an abandoned farm on Long Island, and after a few months, Connors’s office worked with city officials to arrange for b.good to take over the farm.
“I thought we were doing a good thing, because the land had been fallow for several seasons,” Connors said. “This was an opportunity to help feed poor families.”
Connors said he had no idea that anyone else was interested in restarting the farm.
“It seemed quite the opposite,” he said.
Connors acknowledged that most of the harvest wouldn’t be available for the camp, but he vowed that the produce would make it to the campers’ families.
“We’ll be setting up a kind of farmers market, and it will be free to them,” he said.
On a recent visit to the island, Olinto and several colleagues explained how they had used the city’s tools to clear weeds, dig trenches, and install irrigation equipment. The company plans to spend at least $60,000 on the farm, mainly for seeds, consulting services, and maintenance, he said.
“Given our investment, we feel great about what we’re doing, and we think it’s fair,” he said.
Olinto said he wasn’t sure how the company would share the produce with the camp after it closes, but he said b.good intends to live up to its promises.
“We’re trying to figure it out as we go,” he said. “This is something we’re really proud of and want to be really special.”