Regional Boston Director
The Food Project
The challenge for the food movement: how do you build a system in which farms can thrive and low-income consumers can get what they need? That's the nut that nobody's been able to crack but we're working on it.
Interview by Heidi Legg
As part of our two part series on change agents in food and how it gets to those in need, we also interviewed Catherine D'Amato, President of the Boston Food Bank to illustrate two different ways change agents are approaching hunger. We encourage you to read that interview in conjunction with this one with Sutton Kiplinger.
What is The Food Project's mission?
Our mission is personal and social change through sustainable agriculture. The genesis of the food project was recognition that there are so many divisions in our society: race and class and gender and age – and that division perpetuates inequity and increases it. That is a huge problem for our world in so many different ways, and one of the ways we see it playing out is in the food system.
At this point in time, we really have a food system that is built for profit at the expense of the health of people and the health of the land. That is essentially what we're looking to change. We think of a food system as an ecosystem. It's a web of incredibly complex relationships that are really out of balance right now. We're trying to rebalance some of those relationships.
The core of what we do is that we bring together diverse groups of youth to work in partnership with adults on our sustainable farms, growing food that is made accessible to people who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford and access it. In this very concrete way, youth and adults from very different backgrounds are coming together in partnership to meet basic needs and work on this sort of fundamental problem.
How much are you growing?
About 250,000 pounds.
What percentage goes to for-profit?
About sixty percent of our total production generates revenue for the organization to sustain our operations and forty percent of it goes to various kinds of mission-driven outlets.
Does that sixty percent go entirely to funding what you do?
Exactly. We are a non-profit and it basically sustains the farms as a platform for the youth development work to happen.
How does a young person participate here?
Youth ages 14 to 17 enter our intensive seven-week summer program called Seed Crew. It's an employment program where they are paid for participating. It's full time.
They work really hard on the farms. During those seven weeks, they do a lot of farm work and are instrumental in growing the food. They spend time through a series of workshops and other curricular activities understanding core concepts of food justice, anti-oppression, and social justice issues.
One thing that's really unique about The Food Project is that these very diverse groups of youth are supported in talking with each other across difference about topics that are often pretty hard to discuss with people whose experience of life is different than yours.
Who helps them with that?
We have an incredible youth development staff who really facilitate that whole experience, and it's also something that everyone in the organization supports in various ways. Our farmers are incredibly gifted farmers and also youth workers on the side, which is pretty cool. Our Seed Crew had 78 youths this year across Greater Boston and the North Shore. Then a subset move on from Seed Crew into a variety of other experiences in the organization.
During the academic year, they can participate in what we call the Dirt Crew, where they deepen their experience and understanding of the topics that they were exposed to during Seed Crew. They continue doing work on the farms. They begin leading groups of adult volunteers on the farms so that they can translate their understanding and knowledge of how the farms work and how people can engage with farming.
After people go through Dirt Crew, they go on to Root Crew in the summer and through the academic year. It's essentially our most experienced cohort of youth and they can be with us for multiple years - for multiple summers and academic years - and they're responsible for the bulk of our community engagement and community-facing work: they're building gardens for neighbors. They run a series of food justice workshops both for other youth organizations and for neighborhood groups. They're really at the stage where they are independent actors for the organization in the neighborhood. They're amazing.
Our big program day is Saturdays. They work all day on Saturday and then we also have kind of optional afterschool activities or work opportunities that they can participate in.
Do the youth take the food home?
They do. They get a portion of the food that we call the 'backpack share' that they can take home. Initially, in our very early days, all the food we grew was donated to home relief organizations: food pantries and soup kitchens in the communities where we work. Over the 23 years that The Food Project has been in existence, our distribution has become more varied and complex, partly because we're growing so much more food than we were in those days.
I heard your greenhouse is packed with kids from the Dudley Square neighborhood after school.
That is true. That’s another arm of what we do. While some of them are teenagers who are helping harvest or doing other work here, some are younger elementary-aged kids from the surrounding schools who have beds in our greenhouse that their school has used for growing and teaching them about food. One of the things that's amazing about the greenhouse is that it really is a community gathering space, and there are so many kids who come here to hang out.
Do you have to hire community leaders?
Really, it is just Danielle who's our Urban Farm Manager.
There are so many caring adults in there. It's a place where adults in the neighborhood also come to tend plots and to hang out. There's definitely no shortage of people keeping an eye out. It's rare I go into the greenhouse and find no one there.
Is the greenhouse community destination specific to Dudley?
Yes. The greenhouse is the only greenhouse of its size in the city of Boston and we don't have a comparable structure inland.
How did Dudley Square come to be the farm space for the Food Project?
The Food Project was founded in 1991. We were working on land in Lincoln, originally on a piece of land at Drumlin Farm, owned by Mass Audubon. We were founded as a partnership between a farmer from Lincoln and a minister from Roxbury. In 1995, we were approached by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative which is the community development outfit in this neighborhood.
The Food Project was interested in connecting with urban communities and they were interested in having some people start farming this vacant land on Langdon Street.
What happens when a community and a farming organization come together? How do we foster this?
Community control of land and food production is an incredibly powerful thing and I would say it is unequivocally something that we need more of today. One of the fascinating things about working in Dudley in particular is that this is a neighborhood that has incredible interest in food and a lot of expertise around it. This is a heavily immigrant neighborhood: Cape Verdean families, Caribbean families, and if you walk around the neighborhood in the summer, it's just immediately apparent. There are so many people who are really farming entire vacant lots next to their houses. There is so much corn ready for harvest in this neighborhood right now and people grow squash and beans, and that was all here before The Food Project came to this neighborhood.
We really see our role as helping to support that neighborhood activity that was already happening. At the same time, you see all the classic indicators of a broken food system in this neighborhood: high rates of diabetes and hypertension and obesity and heart disease. All those classic signs that the food system is not working the way it should.
Is fresh produce accessible nearby other than what you grow and sell?
Dudley is not officially a 'food desert' by the USDA definition because there are grocery stores at all three corners of this neighborhood, but at the same time when you layer on the data around things like car ownership and how the bus routes go, the reality is that fresh food just isn't widely accessible to the people who live here. There is a lot of fast food in this neighborhood and things that make it hard for people to eat the way they want to eat.
We’ve recently surveyed the neighborhood and found that residents here really want to see different options. The challenge is that this is a very low income neighborhood and affordability is the primary factor that drives people's food buying decisions, and fresh food is always going to be more expensive.
Can they buy food from you here?
Yes. The majority of the food we grow in Dudley on our two acres goes to the farmer’s market that we run at the corner of Dudley Street every Thursday from June through October.
The produce is priced for affordability to this neighborhood, which means that the prices are a good bit lower than you'll see, say, at the farmers market in Copley, and in some cases lower than our cost of production.
How do we scale what you are doing in America?
I think the first step is that we need to give communities control over land and food production. I think access to land, particularly in low-income communities, is a huge issue. There's so much interesting stuff that's happening in worker-owned cooperatives. We basically need to set up an alternative to the huge corporate control that we have of our food system right now.
I think that one of the things that The Food Project has always tried to bring into the conversation around food systems is that we have different choices we can make at every stage of the food production process, from seed to when it's on your plate. We have choices that we can make around the values that we express at each stage of that system.
Right now, the profit value is the primary value that's at play, at the expense of health and sustainability and community involvement. All of these things, when we really think about it, are things we value as a society, and I think what we've tried to do is introduce those other values into the conversation.
As a society, we do have choices about how to set up a food system. Profit is important and it's not the only thing that's important. We need to figure out how to build something that's sustainable but also honors these other interests.
Who can make that change?
Interesting work can be done in individual communities. Part of the reason we're able to be in this neighborhood is because there's a community land trust that's controlled by residents of this neighborhood, and our farms and our greenhouse are on that land trust. We rent those spaces for a dollar a year. It helps us keep food affordable and it ensures that that land will be farmland for as long as the community deems it valuable. As a result, it’s not under development pressure. As this neighborhood gentrifies it won’t be bought out, given it’s a land trust, and that basically stabilizes the means of production for residents of this community.
What public opinion would you like to change?
I would love to see people recognize how powerfully youth can be generative agents of change. I think that we underestimate youth all the time and that they do incredible work when they're set up and supported. When their voices are honored, things happen. Much of what we've tried to do for 23 years is to give youth a platform from which to speak about the things they care about and to participate in making change now.
Another is that the food movement has grown and blossomed and it feels a little bit like it's happening along two tracks that have kind of diverged from one another. There's a track of people who are interested in sustainability and in bolstering an economically viable small farm sector - and that's incredibly important - and then there's another track that's interested in justice and access to good food for all. I think those two tracks of the movement don't speak to each other as much as needed today.
On the sustainability side, there is a sense that if we all pay higher prices for carrots - which we absolutely should because carrots cost money to produce - then that will make small farms viable and eventually they'll be able to lower their costs and the rising tides will raise all boats. But it is just not happening, and if that's the only way that we're thinking about change in the food system, we're going to continue to leave low-income communities behind.
Then in the food access and justice line of thinking, there's so much focus on affordability and interest in getting produce into bodegas where people can access it for low prices. Yet, if those tomatoes were grown in chemical-saturated fields by workers who weren't paid a living wage, we are not actually solving the problem.
The Food Project works to invite people into a dialogue that encompasses both of those strands. We have to redesign a system that serves both of those interests at once.
Who will lead this? Government? A corporate leader?
This is where we really need to see active community conversation, community control, and community-based solutions because a food system is a web of relationships and the closer those relationships are, the more accountability there is and accountability fosters equity. A farmer who is growing for customers they know will grow the things they know their customers want, and will figure out how to grow them in a way that the customers can afford. A community that can't afford food will figure out how to grow food for itself if it has to. There are so many different types of solutions, and I think that our interest is in supporting the conversation to determine which mix of solutions is right for the neighborhoods where we work. One mix of solutions is not necessarily right for another neighborhood.
Where are you having those conversations other than Dudley and Lincoln? How far is your reach?
We sit on a number of the councils that are involved in food planning for the city and state. We have a seat on the Massachusetts Food Policy Council and on the Boston Food Policy Council. We'll be participating in the statewide food systems planning process the MAPC is running.
The Food Project is in a really lucky position of having a national platform. If we do community-based work well, even only in these two communities, then we can offer a model that other communities can use. We’ve been around for a long time and because we were in this work early, we now have people from all over the country coming to us to ask how they can replicate what we are doing. We run an institute twice a year, The Winter Institute and The Summer Institute, for folks to come from across the country and learn how our model works.
Somebody just contacted me yesterday about coming to our institute. She actually works at Giants Stadium in San Francisco and they want to do something similar there and bring in the youth. It’s these unique uses of public space that will change the game, and there are organizations all over the country that have set up farm-based youth development work that is modeled on The Food Project.
How did you find yourself championing food changes?
I had been in public health in my early career, mainly interested in health as an angle to work on poverty. After seven years in that sector, it just became increasingly clear that everything that we were working on, at its base, was a food issue.
I was first in New York based at our Harlem Hospital and then in Boston at Boston Medical Center. Much of what we were looking at was about people not being to afford what they wanted to eat, people dealing with the ramifications of a food system that wasn't working for them. I kept feeling like there is so much more upstream from us, and between that and a personal sense that so many of the issues around climate change were very, very pressing, it seemed food is the place where you can address all those things at once.
I took what to many people looked like a total left turn into production farming. It made perfect sense to me and everyone else thought I'd gone off the deep end.
I moved to work on an organic family farm, Dandelion Spring Farm on the Mid Coast of Maine, that was a diversified vegetable, dairy, and meat farm that does incredible work and sells into restaurants and markets in Portland. I spent a season there interested in understanding the production side realities of why it is so hard to make good food affordable.
Then I spent two years at Waltham Fields Community Farm, another totally incredible operation. Waltham runs a five-hundred-share vegetable CSA and also routes 20% of their total production to food access distribution. It is an incredibly efficient farm. It's essentially harnessing a commercially viable farm system to grow more for people who can't afford it. I came to The Food Project last fall and it was an opportunity to stay engaged with production work and leverage it for systemic change.
Where do you get your news?
Any secret source you love?
I love spending a quiet weekend morning hanging out on the big steps overlooking the water at the ICA -- it's so peaceful there.
What event are you most looking forward to?
My first nephew is going to get himself born any day now! I can't wait to meet him.