Ten years ago the Boston Public Market was a dream for a group of determined Bostonians, armed with the vision to bring fresh, locally grown food to downtown Boston; now that vision is a spectacular brick-and-mortar location, adjacent to the Greenway, and about to open for business. We should use this grand opening to make the Public Market the standard bearer for the launch and support of a bold array of food initiatives reaching into every Boston neighborhood, every Gateway city, rural town, senior center, and school cafeteria — anywhere where quality, nutritious locally grown and raised food is in short supply.
When the Friends of the Boston Public Market first gathered, "food policy" was an unknown term in government, at foundations (with the important exception of the Barr Foundation), and with potential corporate sponsors. Slowly, as the development of the Public Market moved forward and the work of groups such as The Food Project and Project Bread began to demonstrate the economic and public health dynamics of accessible healthy food, the ice began to melt and a new public policy took shape.
Foundations and corporate donors who once said, "we don't 'do' food" changed their tune and led program and policy efforts. New foundations from Eos to the Kendall Foundation to the John Henry Foundation broke revolutionary new ground, particularly Andy Kendall and his foundation, without which there would not be a Boston Public Market today.
Public policy also began to change. The late Mayor Tom Menino, who had already dramatically expanded the number of neighborhood supermarkets and farmers markets in Boston, established a Food Policy Council of local food innovators. Soon after that, the city put food trucks on the street, rezoned the city for urban agriculture, provided wages for summer youth workers at nonprofit food initiatives, and supported the expansion of a small food incubator in Jamaica Plain into the new Commonwealth Kitchen in Grove Hall.
At the state House, Representative Liz Malia filed successful legislation providing the first project financing for the Boston Public Market and Governor Deval Patrick backed it up with meaningful dollars. Representative Steve Kulik filed legislation to start a state Food Policy Council which continues working on a Massachusetts Food Plan. In Washington, Congress added funds to the budget for a "double bucks" program to help low-income families buy healthy foods at farmers markets, based in part on the Boston Bounty Bucks program.
Two bills have now made its way through the Legislature to create a $2 million Massachusetts Food Innovation Trust for new startups in last year's Environmental Bond Bill and a Massachusetts Food Trust to expand food access in this year's state budget. Now the challenge is before us — do we want to open the Boston Public Market and close the door on more food ventures, or do we want to make the Market a springboard to a thriving food economy statewide — more year-round markets, more year-round growers, more successful startups, and more food access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.
Wise public officials, strong community leaders, and far-seeing philanthropists got us to this stage of food innovation and leadership. They lit the spark; now the question is before us. Will we keep the flame alive, or will it be a short, shining but finite moment in our history? There is so much more to do, in food access, in school food, in food resilience, and in year-round growing strategies, so let's move forward and make the opening of the Boston Public Market the beginning of the next great chapter of Boston's exciting local food economy.
Howard Leibowitz is the former executive director of the Boston Public Market and a cofounder of the Boston Food Policy Council.