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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

Seeding the Future: The Food Project, Roxbury and Lincoln, Massachusetts

by Chris Lazarus

The commitment and support of two unique and complementary communities, one low-income (Roxbury), and one affluent (Lincoln), as well as the dedication of its visionary staff, account for the success of The Food Project in Boston. Founded in 1991 with the purpose of developing youth and community through food and sustainable agriculture, The Food Project in 1999 grew 128,000 pounds of food and hired 60 teenagers for eight weeks during the summer to tend to the land, work in Boston homeless shelters, and run two farmers’ markets. Food is raised sustainably, without pesticides, in two inner-city lots, where the soil has been remediated, and on 10 acres of their 21-acre conservation property in suburban Lincoln.

Because part of its mission is to make fresh, healthful food available to those with little or no access to it, 55% of the food grown this year was donated to shelters and soup kitchens (where the teens and volunteers prepare meals) and 5% was sold in inner city farmers’ markets, where prices are appropriate for that community. The other 40% went to 50 paying shareholders of the project’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Lincoln, which just started in 1999 and is expected to fully pay for all food production costs within three or four years. Food production, however, constitutes only about 25% of The Food Project’s budget, most of which funds youth training and public education programs. This coming summer, a chef from one of Boston’s fine restaurants, who for the past two years volunteered to teach teens how to cook community meals, will work with them to create a value-added food product they can sell to raise additional revenues.

Building bridges between teens from low-income areas and those from more affluent areas and giving all of these young people life skills they can use in whatever careers they follow is how the project contributes to economic and community development. The mix of teens in the program is 60% from the inner city, 40% from communities outside the city. “Some teens unconsciously wind up modeling for others, and they all learn to appreciate each other’s strengths,” says Pat Gray, co-director of The Food Project.

For most of the teens, The Food Project provides their first employment opportunity. While the bulk of job and life-skills training takes place during summer, the organization also offers year-round jobs and leadership training for a smaller number of teens. During the school year, 20 teens lead volunteers in planting and harvesting. Each year, approximately 10 graduates of the training program stay on in internships, doing urban gardening, public education, and community organizing. This past year Food Project interns helped staff set up the first-ever national youth conference on food, the environment, and community. This event in Boston was so successful that a similar conference is in the works for 2000 in San Francisco, co-hosted by the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) and co-sponsored by the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA).

The Food Project is grappling with the land ownership issue in both communities. It is asking the Conservation Commission for a long-term lease on the 21-acre property in Lincoln, a community with a 30-year history of preserving open space. Meanwhile, it seems likely that the lease on the 2 1/2 acres of city-owned land in Roxbury will be given to The Food Project’s urban collaborator, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative organization. DSNI has gained a nationwide reputation for its community activism and empowerment - a rare constellation of visionaries, indeed.

Plans for the future include gradually increasing the acreage farmed in Lincoln to a total of 16, which would make it possible to hire 100 teens during the summer; building a greenhouse in Roxbury, essential to make agriculture a year-round activity in the Northeast; and creating an Urban Center for Youth, Food and Enterprise that will include a commercial kitchen and a learning center.

The Urban Center will be the perfect illustration of The Food Project’s objective, and highly appropriate for one of the successful pioneers in this challenging and rapidly evolving field of urban agriculture. “We spend a lot of time documenting our programs so that we can make this information available to others,” explains Gray. “Rather than growing huge ourselves, we want to seed this idea and inspire others to do the same.”

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