Twelve miles outside Boston
lies the town of Lincoln, a small suburb that feels anything
but suburban. Nearly 2,000 acres of open space give the town
a rural character little in evidence in the densely populated
Boston metro area. Small farms thrive, leasing the land that
was set aside by forward-thinking citizens decades ago.
great first job -- they really help you to know what
you're doing wrong and what you can improve on. You
have a really strong connection with all the people
on your crew."
- Will Quayle, 16
Even within this model of land-use planning, one 31-acre
farm stands out.
That space belongs to The Food Project, a 14-year-old
experiment in sustainable agriculture and social justice.
The Food Project got its start in 1991, when founder Ward
Cheney brought to this land his dream of uniting inner-city
and suburban youth by growing food. Teens from disparate backgrounds
joined together in a summer program; they donated the resulting
produce to Boston's hungry.
Since then, the Food Project has grown beyond a seasonal
event to include an academic-year program, a CSA, a farmers’
market operation, a catering business, paid internships and
fellowships, and public outreach workshops. It has three sites
within the city of Boston proper and a replication site in
development on the city’s North Shore. It has 30 full-time
staff, 132 paid youth workers, and a force of as many as 2,000
volunteers a year.
And it has produced more than 1 million pounds – that’s
500 tons -- of food.
Throughout its expansion, the mission has been constant. Greg
Gale, a co-founder who now oversees the youth programs, says
that the project has changed in scale but not quality. Its
philosophy -- now as before -- is to transform youth from
consumers into producers.
"In this day and age, young people pretty much just
consume -- that's sort of their holding pattern till they're
20-something,” Gale says. “So we can take them
at 14 or 15 and say, 'You're going to learn essential knowledge
that we're losing in our culture, because the fact that you
know how to grow food is an incredible, incredible thing.
It provides food for your family, it will be valuable as people
recognize that we need to farm differently than we have.’”
“There's a lot of ways to explain to young people that
this is very consequential,” he says. The land provides
this incredible opportunity for young people to be in nature
doing a fundamentally human activity."
Rebuilding different soils
The Lincoln site had been farmed for 200 years, but the most
recent user prior to the Food Project had mono-cropped pumpkins
year after year there, leaving the soil greatly depleted.
Project workers have slowly restored fertility to the soil,
building organic matter through cover-cropping. Oats and peas
succeed the summer crops; rye succeeds late crops like winter
The sandy soil by now is quite soft, amenable to hand weeding
and light mechanical cultivation. The farm vehicles are antiques—a
classic Allis Chalmers G, and some Farmall Cubs dating from
the 60s. The teens rarely have to use anything heavier than
hula hoes and rakes. "Everybody really wants to use tools,"
says farm manager Elise LeClair, "but they don't really
The urban sites, on reclaimed abandoned lots, had very different
soil issues. Most had major problems with lead contamination.
Some sites were completely excavated and refilled with fresh
compost and soil; others receive top dressing with 2 feet
of compost. In others, the new soil went into raised beds.
Crops are planted closer together than in Lincoln, and there's
no room for tractor cultivation. To handle the urban tillage
needs, the youth crews learn to use heavier hand tools like
wheel hoes and broadforks.
The Food Project farms are not certified organic, though
they use similar growing techniques. They use some conventional
chicken manure for fertility, and the tightly bordered urban
sites cannot spare the space for an organic buffer zone. Inputs
for pests and disease are few; they include Surround®
(kaolin clay) for the cucurbits, and the spinosad product
Entrust® for the potato beetles. The Lincoln crops are
rotated by crop family and tractor timing; the city lots are
multi-cropped to maximize space.
The neighborhood residents and local markets that use their
produce understand that the food is raised sustainably. Gale
and others said none have demanded the organic label.
Growing leadership, step by step
What distinguishes the Food
Project from other youth gardening efforts is its purposeful
approach to understanding and coaching young people through
the state of confusion and restlessness that is adolescence.
||A gangly 15-year-old went before the
crowd and talked about the salad he'd made with the guest
chef: "It's cool," he said. "I weeded that
lettuce. I harvested those carrots."
The scope of its ambition is audacious. Some urban youth
come from neighborhoods featuring mostly fast-food chains
and liquor stores. By giving these young women and men meaningful
work and as much responsibility as they can handle, the project
nurtures productive individuals who act as articulate advocates
for sustainable ways of growing and marketing food.
Youth participate in programs that interface with every aspect
of the food, including production on the farms, consumption
(catering, community lunches), public education, policy change
and working alongside legislators. The policy-focused BLAST
(Building Local Agriculture Systems Today) initiative is the
group’s outreach arm.
Food Project teens soon learn that they're involved in much
more than a first job. Workers follow high standards, which
are reinforced by "Straight Talk" sessions where
both the youth and adults must listen to and offer praise
and constructive criticism. Sixteen-year-old Will Quayle says,
"It was more responsibility than I had ever had before.
It's a great first job -- they really help you to know what
you're doing wrong and what you can improve on. You have a
really strong connection with all the people on your crew."
Young people are encouraged to join internship programs in
diversity, kitchen skills and agriculture that give focus
to their Food Project experience. They practice their public
speaking in workshops attended by all. After a year or two,
they start taking on responsibility to guide younger members.
Public service is a vital part of the program, so kids send
much of their week bringing the food they grow to local homeless
shelters and soup kitchens.
On a visit earlier this summer, the crews were serving their
weekly community lunch. A gangly 15-year-old went before the
crowd and talked about the salad he'd made with the guest
chef: "It's cool," he said. "I weeded that
lettuce. I harvested those carrots." After lunch, paychecks
were distributed; for some, the first earnings of their lifetimes.
After the whooping and cheers subsided, they launched straight
into the next event -- a money management workshop.
The abundance of guidance and community surprises most newcomers
to the Food Project. "I thought it was going to be just
working,” says Paul Pitre about his early days. “They'll
just talk to you about stuff, and then you go home."
But that kind of top-down leadership, says Gale, would have
sent the wrong message. "We don't make work for them,
we don't [just] pretend that the mission's important--we actually,
really feel it. They feel that, and that's where this deep
commitment comes from in a lot of them. I mean kids stay with
us for years to keep serving."
Pitre has since formed close friendships within the organization,
and has moved on to its outreach program, teaching others
about what he's learned about local food.
Reaching out to the public.
Because the Food Project has become such a visible community
organization, every year hosts of volunteers—from 1,000
to 2,000-- come to meet the teens and work with them on the
farm. There are individuals as well as groups that come from
corporations, churches, and schools that have a community
service requirement. The abundance of available labor (paid
project youth and the voluntees) has shaped the land: Elise
LeClair says the fields are shaped into blocks rather than
rows, to create a better atmosphere for groups. The corn is
all transplanted by hand rather than direct-seeded, giving
the field a strikingly orderly appearance.
Currently funding comes about 40 percent from grants, 40
percent from contributions, and 10 percent from earned income.
According to interim director Josh Solomon, the organization
"started out largely foundation-driven, like many small
non-profits. We've worked hard to build up the other sources,
mostly the revenue, so we're more financially stable."
The group's name recognition has begun to spread well beyond
the Boston community.
- Dark green "Food Project" t-shirts and sweatshirts
have become a familiar sight at sustainable-agriculture
conferences nationwide, as interns work to get the word
out to other youth groups.
- Interns from BLAST travel the country, putting on presentations
about the dangers of a poor diet, the lack of food access
in poor communities, and the importance of eating local
Once a year, the Food Project descends on Copley Square in
the center of Boston, brandishing bunches of just-harvested
carrots; the tags hold information that challenges the public
to raise its local food awareness. This year, this "Day
of Action" was expanded to a weeklong series of events,
dubbed "Eat In Act Out" and linked with initiatives.
Collaborating groups included Seeds of Solidarity, Orange,
MA; Heifer Project, Little Rock, AR; the Locavores in the
San Francisco Bay area of California; the Hartford Food System,
Hartford, CT; and Garden Raised Bounty, Olympia, WA.
Spreading the word at home
For many teens at the Food Project, it's hard to translate what
they do to their peers: "They're like ‘OK, you work
on a farm’," says Katie Traver, 18. She has been
working at the Food Project for five summers in different capacities.
"It's not just a farm. You're weeding and watering and
planting to emphasize and support the vital things you learn
in workshop, and the community-building activities. So you have
a diversity workshop, and when you go through the farming you
might be paired with someone who's from Roxbury [an inner-city
neighborhood] and you're from [the suburb of] Harvard, so it
heightens what you just learned. The farming is a means to an
Over time, says co-founder Cammy Watts,
the work has begun to transform how kids see farming. "At
first it was difficult for the young people, it was so new,
and none of their peers thought it was a reasonable thing
to do. I think they felt pretty ostracized in the community;
they'd come home dirty and tired.
“To some degree that's changed,” says Watts.
“Today, young people's friends may work at CVS; they
many not understand getting up on Saturday at 7, but they
understand being outside and growing food."
She says that this year, for the first time, the applicants
she interviewed for the Food Project began by talking to her
about food and food choices -- as if they had the clear impression
that what they were after went far beyond a paycheck, some
fresh air, and some new friends.
For details: http://www.thefoodproject.org/