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
"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
Even within this model of land-use planning, one 31-acre farm
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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,
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
“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
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/