The Food Project Connects Communities to Fresh Food

Program puts next generation of farmers to work in Boston region.

Students Tending Plants

Teens harvest crops at The Food Project's farm in Boston.

Christopher Fowler

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Some neighborhoods in Greater Boston are considered food deserts, areas that lack access to healthy and affordable fresh food. With no supermarkets or farmers’ markets nearby, low-income residents must rely on expensive corner stores that stock shelves with processed food.

It’s like a variation of the old adage: “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” Fast-food restaurants and corner bodegas may abound, but there is little to eat. Immigrant families, cut off from their traditional foods and stretching their food budgets on limited incomes, turn to processed foods. Their children lose their connection to fresh food and farms as they grow up.

The Food Project is an organization working to reconnect these communities to fresh food, and it’s doing so partly by getting children back on the farm. While the 20-year-old group provides subsidized community supported agriculture farm shares and organizes farmers’ markets in underserved communities, it also grows the next generation of farmers with its youth food and farming programs.

The goal is “to get folks healthy right from the start,” says Michael Iceland, a communications manager for The Food Project. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of intervention.”

Every year, the organization hires some 90 urban and suburban teenagers from the Boston area and nearby communities for its summer farm program. The teens work on area farmland used by the organization to grow 200 different varieties of 50 different vegetables for subsidized CSA shares and farmers’ markets. The organization has some 40 acres, leased or loaned by preservation groups or communities.

Many of the teens who work there have little idea of how food is grown, says John Wang, The Food Project intern program coordinator. “They have no idea if their food grows aboveground or underground,” Wang says.

Tenth-grader Fernando Ortiz Ruiz probably fit that description when he began with the project. He lives in Revere, a gritty city northeast of Boston where street gangs are active and the city’s beach last summer was the site of a giant brawl that made national headlines. The summer before his ninth-grade year, Ortiz Ruiz was looking for some kind of summer work to keep him out of trouble. A teacher suggested The Food Project, and he was shown a video of the teens on the farm.

“As soon as I saw the video, I said, ‘I want to do that,’” he says. “They were having a good time; they were getting their hands dirty.”

Ortiz Ruiz was hired and put to work on one of the area farms. He soon learned it was hard work, the hardest he had ever known. Every morning was filled with physical labor on the farm, and every afternoon he and the others attended classes about food justice and farming. After that first week, he was exhausted.

“I was so tired. I had cuts all over, bruises. I hated winter squash,” he says. But he stuck with it and learned to love it. Now, he is trying to push some of his friends who are in danger of dropping out of school to sign up this summer. “It would do them some good,” he says.

Ortiz Ruiz is continuing to work with the farms as part of The Food Project’s school-year program, named D.I.R.T., or Dynamic Intelligent Responsible Teenagers. (Teens themselves named the program.) He and 40 other graduates from the summer program are learning more in-depth farming and public-speaking skills. They use these skills to reach out to their communities.

“Honestly, teenagers in general are much better ambassadors than the staffers ever can be,” says Iceland.

They also lead volunteer work-groups on the farm. Whereas before they learned farming skills, in the D.I.R.T. program they learn to influence their communities.

“They start realizing their potential to be leaders,” says Wang.

Now Ortiz Ruiz is hoping to study biology in college. He wants an outdoors career, working just as hard as he works on the farm.

“I want to come home physically tired so much so that I don’t have the energy to go out and do anything stupid,” he says. “A lot of my friends call me crazy.”

As they get older, graduates of D.I.R.T. can be hired on as Food Project interns. Along with continuing to work on the farm, interns go into classrooms to teach their peers about healthy eating and other food issues. They speak at local and national food conferences. Many later are hired as staffers within The Food Project, including one current farm manager. Some even serve on The Food Project’s board and make key decisions on how to run the farms and the organization, says Iceland.

“My boss reports to a couple of teenagers,” Iceland says.

Similar programs, using The Food Project model, have been created in places like St. Paul, Minnesota, and Austin, Texas. Some of these programs are being started by Food Project alumni. Other Food Project graduates go on to farm on their own. No matter what they do, working on The Food Project changes how these teens will look at food for the rest of their lives.