Cultivating the soil, cultivating youth
The Food Project builds human character through regenerative agriculture that engages diverse youth in creative growing, marketing and community service.

By T. Susan Chang
September 15, 2005

The "Corn Dogs" work crew weeds sunflowers for the Food Project's CSA flower garden.
They are led by Adebayo Owolewa, the farm's youth program coordinator.

"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."

- Will Quayle, 16

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.

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 squash.

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 need to."

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

Jim Solomon, of the Fireplace Restaurant in Brookline, joins the serving line at a Program catered 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."
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.

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 food.

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 end, almost."

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.

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