After an eye opening and wonderfully inspiring experience with the ladies of the Driving Food Home Collective, I continued my summer plans to travel east following our stop at The Lama Foundation in Taos, NM. While home in New England, I chose to visit a few urban farms and gardens before returning to Olympia, WA to serve as the new KGP Backyard Gardens Coordinator (AmeriCorps) at Garden-Raised Bounty (GRuB). Going forward, the ladies of the collective plan to continue posting their individual findings, adding to the greater picture painted by this summer’s exploration.
As one major inspiration for GRuB (the program I’ve returned to Olympia, WA to serve with), The Food Project (TFP) was an obvious first destination in Massachusetts. As TFP story goes, a white farmer and a black minister came together, seeding the beginnings of a shared vision. They sought to create a program that would bring together teens from urban and suburban communities around the Greater Boston Area. The organization would offer the space for teens to cultivate land alongside one another, discovering what it takes to produce nourishing food, as well as the importance of providing fresh produce for themselves and their communities. Since its inception in 1991, over 1,000 teens have participated in TFP programs.
Currently, The Food Project has urban locations in Boston and Lynn as well as suburban locations in Lincoln and Beverley. By now, their model — which prioritizes youth and community involvement in food production — has inspired over 200 similar organizations across the United States. The network of inspired projects based on The Food Project attests to the fact that “nothing ties us more intimately to each other and the planet than food, making food a uniquely effective vehicle for both personal and social change” by bringing together diverse peoples of different ages, economic, cultural and racial backgrounds.
Stephanie, a long time friend and RN in Massachusetts, came along for the ride. We traveled about 40 minutes north of downtown Boston to the TFP North Shore location, where they serve youth from Lynn and neighboring towns. When we arrived, one of the summer interns, Kasey, showed us around. He was building a tool rack to better organize the shed for when the youth are finished with daily tasks. An alumni of the youth program, himself, Kasey had quite a bit to share about both the structure and the many benefits of The Food Project’s work. Here, TFP works with 24 of the 140 total teens served at all of their various locations. In addition to youth involvement, about 3,000 volunteers come out to help cultivate produce throughout the growing season. In the TFP youth program, teens are given stipends for their work on the farm. During their time with The Food Project, they learn skills in leadership, public speaking, and how to work collaboratively alongside peers despite significant differences. In this way, TFP certainly provides youth with real-life transferable skills. From the farm stands and CSA’s, to the programs affording greater access to fresh produce for folks with low income, to the youth program itself, The Food Project highlights three very important aspects of its philanthropic approach to food production: food, youth and community.
Kasey enthusiastically shared information about volunteer days and the various opportunities for large companies to bring out their employees for philanthropic team-building experiences on the farm. He mentioned that these volunteer groups are key to sourcing private and corporate funders that help to keep the organization running. In fact, 57% of TFP annual revenue comes from private and corporate donations, where as only 13% comes from tuition for trainings they offer and produce sales. This is not uncommon for non-profit organizations; most rely heavily on generous donations and grants. This reliance is an issue yet to be addressed, as it puts sustainable aspects of non-profit business models under question due to the inconsistencies of their funding sources. For The Food Project, they rely on acquiring about $4 million each year to cover their program expenses.
Kasey told us of the Munroe Street Farm & Community Garden just a few blocks away that was hosting a market CSA stand. When we arrived at Munroe farm, the youth were around back with Genea Fosters, one of the Massachusetts PromiseFellows serving with the North Shore team of TFP youth (24 of the 140 are served in Lynn). The youth were participating in a non-violent communication technique known as “Straight Talk.” Straight Talk includes one-on-one interaction wherein each person says one positive affirmation (known as an alpha) and one thing that the person can improve upon (known as a delta). Straight Talk provides a safe space for peers to communicate openly about what they love about each other, as well as what they see can be improved upon, with an overall goal of benefitting the whole group.
“So, what’s your story?” I asked Ashlyne (one of the TFP youth in Lynn, pictured above) while Steph and I were trellising cherry tomatoes with her guidance. She’s a senior in high school, now with a full scholarship to Utica College, and came to work at The Food Project initially “because my brother was doing it,” she said. “That’s the only reason I came around, and I had decided I hated it because I would always get dirty.” She laughed to herself a little; “That didn’t last long. I soon started to love the work, I felt good after, and got to meet so many people I wouldn’t have otherwise.” She emphasized how working with TFP is great for meeting people from all over the North Shore. Usually, teens stay in their neighborhoods and don’t grow their circle of friends much past that.
The TFP sites in Lynn are also home to community garden plots, available for any member of the community at a small seasonal fee. At the Munroe Street Farm & Community Garden, about a quarter of the land was dedicated to these public plots. The site also featured a “you-pick” CSA option for families to come and pick their own veggies as well as an option to pick your own flowers for a take home bouquet. While we were there, we picked (and tasted!) cherry tomatoes alongside families and their children. We laughed and talked with one another for a bit. There is something about sharing time and space with complete strangers that adds a special quality of experience to an otherwise ordinary day. We step outside our comfort zones, and connect; this offers a kind of nourishment beyond what can be found in good food.
By implementing various strategies for increasing fresh food access in Boston, The Food Project exemplifies values and practices that provide inspiration for individuals and organizations seeking broader personal and societal change. On our drive home from Munroe Street, Stephanie reflected, “Wow, that place really drew people in. I can see how just having that growing space on a busy street can really create a feeling of community.” By offering spaces like this where people can gather amongst the busy streets of Lynn, TFP is helping provide that sense of community. It doesn’t matter if you know how to grow food, or what you do for a living. In spaces like these, those types of barriers fall away and all can feel welcome to build and share in community.
By Ali Mediate