(photo credit Ross Condit)
A vision imagined by farmer and activist Ward Cheney, The Food Project has been uniting urban and suburban youths from the Greater Boston area on farms since 1991.
“When it was founded it was radical,” Casey Moir, 26, Food Project alumna, says. “It was completely against what everybody else was doing. It intentionally brought together a diverse group of people, and it did something that nobody was doing yet, which was growing food on the land in the city and outside of the city. It was really connecting things.”
Agriculture and kids have both changed and not changed at all in twenty-six years. There were almost no CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture Programs) when the Food Project began. Farmers’ markets were in their infancy, as was email. The iphone hadn’t been invented.
Today the Food Project farms 31 acres in Lincoln, 34 acres in Wenham, 2.5 acres in Boston, 2 acres in Beverly, and an acre in Lynn, a mix of urban and suburban agriculture. CSA programs and farmers markets are important ways the organization funnels fresh produce into communities with poor access to good food. About iphones, there are strict rules surrounding them and headphone use: none of it, even on the youths’ commutes to the farms together. (Fines, deducted from their wages, are levied for abuse.) That wasn’t an issue twenty-six years ago.
But farming is still about long days in the hot sun or cold rain, and kids still love doing things together. Those things haven’t changed. Many hundreds of teenagers have passed through the Food Project since those early Cheney days. You see them in dark green Food Project t-shirts waiting on the Porter Square commuter rail platform for the train to the Lincoln farm. You see them in Beverly, those green t-shirts bent over in the fields at Long Hill. You see them bundling lettuces and radishes at the Dudley Town Common farmers market. (The Food Project also has tents at the Egleston farmers market in Jamaica Plain and the Lynn Central Square farmers market in Lynn.) You see youths in green t-shirts delivering crates of produce to the Open Door in Gloucester, one of the hunger relief organizations that receives the youth-grown food. The Food Project aspires to donate and distribute 40 percent of its harvest to food insecure communities. You see youths in green t-shirts shoveling compost into raised bed gardens in communities like Dorchester, Mattapan, Lynn, and Gloucester, building gardens, then teaching people how to raise their own fresh healthy food.
The Food Project teaches youth how to grow and distribute food, but it also teaches them the ways our food systems reflect this culture’s social and racial inequalities. Social justice is as important a part of the Food Project curriculum as planting, and might be its most important mission; through meaningful work and exposure to the realities of this country’s inequities, the Food Project cultivates future leaders.
Here are the views of five Food Project alumni, examining their time at The Food Project, and how it shaped them.
Lucas Munson, 22
Lucas Munson, like all the alumni, started at the Food Project when he was fifteen, the summer before his sophomore year of high school. He had never farmed and didn’t really cook. His older sister had been part of the Food Project, and his family often talked about it around the dinner table.
“I was a typical suburban kid from Arlington, MA; I had no connection to agriculture, but I was really excited the first day; the combination of being on a farm and not knowing a single person was really exciting.”
“We would take the train from Porter Square and then the Food Project would pick us up at the station with a bus. We’d arrive at 8:50, and have 15 minutes of check-in. We would work in crews of 12. There would be the task of the day – picking potatoes, weeding carrots. We would work with a buddy in a leap frog system. We worked across from our buddy, one of us would hold the crate for harvest. When we approached the team in front of us we would leap frog them farther down the field. Depending on our energy, we would race each other.”
“At the end of the first week the Food Project people created a meal for us they called ‘Lunch from Around the World.’ I thought it was going to be stuff like Mexican food, but no. Some people got cold, dirty old beans in a paper cup; other people got beans and rice. And then some people were allowed to go to a cordoned off section, and have chicken and fruit. We learned how much life is just luck; I’m just lucky to have been born into my comfortable suburban life.”
Lucas spoke to me over Skype from Rome, where he is doing an Urban Studies initiative through Cornell University where he is an undergrad.
He said he realized after that lunch, “there’s something bigger going on here; the Food Project shows you your role in the food system.”
Lucas said the hardest part of the Food Project was when he saw blatant racism or sexism, “when I was the white guy people would come to, but I really didn’t know anything. That was hard, really facing the reality of the world.”
“One time we were at a hunger relief organization, a Wednesday. Some one was there serving Cambodian food. I had just arrived, and there was a lot of confusion, but there was a black girl who had arrived ahead of me, and she had been given all the information about the event. She was my peer, and she knew what was going on, but everyone kept coming up to me as if I should be the one to know, because I was the white guy. It got really uncomfortable because it kept happening over and over again, even though I didn’t know anything, and she did. People kept deferring to me as the one who should know.”
Through the Cornell Cooperative Extension, a state-wide program, Lucas has continued the kind of work he began at the Food Project, participating in nutrition education programs in Brooklyn and Queens.
“In Queens we talked to people, helped single moms think about ways to get healthy meals on the table even though they are incredibly busy, how they can get their kids to stop watching so much television even though the moms are so over stressed. They were teaching me 80% of the time I was supposed to be teaching them!”
Lucas felt strongly that the Food Project directed the choices he has continued to make.
“The Food Project makes a craving in you. Once you leave you seek that out. You seek out people who don’t take the world as it is, who aren’t shut down to the problems. The Food Project definitely fosters that mentality in individuals that I haven’t seen other institutions do.”
Valerie Cardoso, 24
Valerie Cardoso grew up in Dorchester, right in the neighborhood where the Food Project gardens. Valerie’s soccer coach, Kathleen Banfield, had worked for the Food Project, and suggested Valerie apply.
She remembers her first day like this: “I was really shy. I was nervous. My dad dropped me off at the Commuter Rail in Porter Square and I was so nervous, but once I got to the farm I was excited. I was nervous about people, but excited about the work.”
“A lot of the summer is spent weeding. You smell like garlic and onions all the time. You get on the Commuter Rail at the end of the day and there is dirt all over your legs and shoes. I didn’t like the smell but liked touching the dirt. I like weeding because you can see the difference so clearly afterward. We would set goals of weeding beds, and it felt really good to see the cleaned rows.”
One of Valerie’s favorite Food Project memories is of the day they harvested watermelons.
“We had a line of people down the bed. Someone would pick a watermelon, and toss it to the next person, who would then toss it down the line. I couldn’t catch them all – I’m a small person – and would drop them occasionally, but we got to eat the dropped ones!”
“I come from a low income family, but I didn’t know (before the Food Project) that there were words for the reasons behind it. At the Food Project I learned the vocabulary of what this is. We had a lot of discussions on poverty, race, inequality, how that relates to food justice. I had never thought about that before. That was just my everyday life, the fact that my mother had to take a bus to get to a grocery store because no grocery store would come into our neighborhood.”
“When I was an intern we did an exercise in Jackson Square where there is a large Dominican community. We had a certain amount of time to find as much quality food as we could in a certain area. It was very hard. This was usual for me, but eye-opening for the suburban kids.”
But privilege is nuanced, Valerie also learned; there is an “intersectionality” to it.
“We do a privilege workshop at the Food Project: It starts with a series of statements, like ‘I was once homeless’ or ‘I come from a one parent household.’ All the participants stand in a row. If anyone can answer one of these statements they take a step backwards. Then there are statements like, ‘I have a college education’ or ‘I am heterosexual,’ statements which, if you can answer, you step forward.
In the end, Valerie learned that while she is female, and a person of color, she is also heterosexual, a college graduate, Christian, and comes from a two parent household, all points that might actually advance her beyond a white gay male without a college degree.
Valerie attended Boston College, where graduated with a major in Sociology and minor in African American Studies.
She spoke to me by phone from a two-day City Year workshop she was leading in Skowhegan, Maine. She is now part of the City Year Team “Care Force.” They build outdoor classrooms, garden beds, picnic tables, sandboxes, paint murals and walls for schools identified as needing “beautification.” It was at the Food Project, Cardoso says, that she learned how to lead volunteers, a skill she employs everyday at her City Year job.
“I think the Food Project was one of the most important things I have done. It was the first place I talked about race, class, gender, the first time I experienced nature, and even good food in general.”
Today the Food Project staff in Dorchester still wave to her dad on their way to the gardens.
Emmanuel Encarnacion, 26
“The Food Project is a way of thinking,” Lynn native Emmanuel Incarnation says, “of asking the question, ‘what is really going on?’”
Emmanuel Encarnation (Manny) started working at the Food Project’s Lynn fields when he was 14. His aunt had heard about the Food Project, and recommended it to Manny’s mother. Manny’s first day was hot and hard.
“It was a lot of labor outside, not what I wanted to be doing on my summer vacation.”
Manny was one of the kids who had a hard time balancing the work with the fun. The youths spend long days with friends, but ultimately there is still a job that needs to be done.
He described the Food Project rules, intended to create a safe workplace, one that allows youths to grow, that presses them to interact, but not too much. Talking is good, but not too much talking.
Youths must all meet from their transportation in Central Square, and walk together, wearing their shirts, to the fields. They have to walk together and they can’t take off their shirts, no matter how hot it is. They can’t swear. They have to handle tools appropriately, as in they can’t hold shovels up high, just because they could hurt themselves or someone else. Every violation has a step. If you swear in week #1 you get a warning, but if you do it again $7.00 is deducted from your pay. If you don’t swear at all the following week you get your $7.00 back.
Of course, class clowns get lower pay checks.
“The hardest moment was seeing one of my crew members fired,” Manny said. “He was a good kid. He had built up a lot of violations. They just kept asking him to take it down a notch. It affected my crew. We were down one person, the dynamic went away, but, also, we realized ‘this can happen.’ We can get fired.”
Half way through the summer the staff started talking to them about food justice and social justice. That’s when Manny experienced “The Lunch,” as he calls it, the exercise in which the youth are separated into the wealthy, the middle class, and the lower class. Manny was middle class.
“The group we had was rebellious. There were a lot of kids who didn’t like it. One kid walked out of the lunch; he was really upset at what was going on. (The staff subsequently caught up with him and explained.) Some tried to steal meat from the upper class. Since the upper classes were also their friends, they tried to pass food over to the poor, but the staff wouldn’t allow it (as part of the lesson), faux-defending their position, “we earned this food! We worked for this food!”
Manny came back as a crew leader. That year the Food Project repeated this exercise with the entire summer program – 150 kids from both the Greater Boston program and the North Shore.
“These kids didn’t know each other at all. They were packed into the Copley Square Church. The lower class had dirty water from buckets. There was definitely anger, rebelling, mixes of classes trying to help each other. It was more realistic this time because they (the participants) didn’t know each other. It got very serious.”
Manny continued at the Food Project through high school. By this time he had also started seriously dancing hip-hop at the Mak’n Step Squad and Dance Team in Lynn. He graduated from Salem State University, where he was vice president of the repertory dance theater and a Presidential Arts Scholar with a double major in business entrepreneurship and dance.
Soon after graduation, at the recommendation of former Food Project staff, Melissa Diamond, Manny became the program coordinator for the first “Food Insecurity Program” at Chelsea HealthCare.
Manny’s initial job was screening visitors coming in for pediatrics, pre-natal, and adult medical center appointments on food insecurity, surveying the population with two basic questions:
#1. In the past month have you not had money to buy food?
#2. Do you want information on healthy eating habits on a budget?
From there Manny supported the affirmatives.
“I worked with food stamp applications. I worked with the food pantry there (in Chelsea), which began serving 12 families a month, and now serves 120 a month. Now it has a partnership with the Greater Boston Food Bank. I helped that program to grow.”
Manny has been at the Chelsea HealthCare Center for 3 years now.
“The undertone of how much the Food Project affected me came when I got this position, I felt so strongly about it.” Call it “The Lunch” lesson.
Manny said that long before his Food Project experience, if he saw someone homeless on the street, he resented them, and didn’t want to give them anything. The Food Project opened his eyes to the number and variety of roads that lead to homelessness, an education that built compassion. Today, Manny says if he sees someone homeless on the street, he doesn’t just offer them a dollar, he says, “you want a burger?”
Manny dances today – contemporary, modern, and jazz – with the Impact Dance Company of Boston.
Casey Moir, 27
Casey Moir is a head-of-the-class student of the Food Project’s social justice lessons,
actualizing exactly the expression, “ask what is really going on here.” She speaks affectionately of the Food Project, as if it were family, but she is also a tough critic.
Casey started working at the Food Project at fifteen; she was the kid with the eye-roll, the “this is stupid, I don’t like working on a farm” line ready to zing.
“And so I missed out on some of those first inspiring moments,” she adds with a half-smile. At the end of the summer a supervisor called her out, saying she needed to stop having an attitude: “Casey, I don’t think you understand. If you put your mind to it you can achieve whatever you want. You have all the tools for it.”
Zinged back, in a way, Casey pivoted, becoming one of Food Project’s greatest supporters. She worked all the crews through high school, and returned for two years after graduation from Hampshire College. The Food Project was the subject of her college thesis, entitled, “Just because I didn’t speak up didn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention’: Envisioning Youth and The Food Project.” Casey ultimately left the Food Project at age 24, when she began teaching 12th grade English full-time at City on the Hill Charter School in Roxbury.
“The Food Project gave me an outlet when I was in high school, a place where I could be seen and heard, and I had a community. It also gave me a sense that it is important and possible to change the systems you live in.”
Today, Casey believes the Food Project should aim higher and clarify its goals.
“The worst two moments of my time at the Food Project were both firings, firing two kids from foster care. It was the best example of where the system is not working for these young people: why are we hiring them if we’re not serving them? If we’re just going to say at the end, ‘sorry, you couldn’t be part of this community, you violate the standards too many times,’ is perpetuating the same systems. Schools do this, too. I think the Food Project is taking steps to think about that, but I would like to see more.”
“What would it look like if the Food Project’s programs more directly addressed structural racism?” she demands. “I don’t think that they are not acknowledging that, and they are doing lots of community work around that, but the question is can you direct that more at youth? Is the Food Project doing all it wants to achieve if it’s hiring 70 percent youth of color and 30 percent white youth, and the white youth are having the more profound learning experiences, and the youth of color are saying, “Yup, already knew that?”
Casey ignites over the problem of structural racism, the ways in which almost silently public policies, institutional practices, and cultural representations perpetuate racial inequality in this country.
“Similar to many institutions, the top staff of the Food Project does not mirror the entry level. This is true also if you look at almost any organization, company, school, from what I can tell. Even a place that intentionally brings in a group of diverse young people at 14-15 years old, by the time you get to the executive director, the staff is dominantly white. And in the case of the Food Project like other non-profits, they are white and female. So the question is how did we get to that if your are bringing in such a diverse group of people? The answer has to be to me that whatever is happening in the youth program isn’t doing enough to resolve that inequity.
Not that it necessarily should, not that the Food Project is going to change structural racism, but this is an issue for me.”
Casey acknowledges the Food Project may be in transition going into its second quarter of a century, but she asks that they take a look at processes in play.
“Do they care (about race?) Is race at the heart of the organization or is food justice at the heart of the organization, in which case it’s ok that the administration is not diverse. I don’t think they would say that it’s ok that it’s not diverse. The people I know who are there know, and think about it, but I wonder whether or not they can make all those changes from within with limited capacity.
“It would sound like I’m really critical of the Food Project but I think that comes from two places: one, that it is a place I care really deeply about, and when you care really deeply about a place it’s also really important to make it a place that is as good as possible. And I want the Food Project to be that place. And the second thing is that I have worked in a lot of other schools, non-profits, places run by the government, places not, and the Food Project is doing better work than most of them. and I think that that is the nature of the terribleness of the system we’re in currently that even in a place that is doing really good work they cannot get it all the way right because there are so many forces causing it to not work for them.”
Jess Liborio, 38
“I build gardens.”
Jess Liboio spoke while sorting seedlings in a Food Project greenhouse – tomatoes, squash, kale, and peppers. Currently the Greater Boston Programming and Community Outreach Manager, Jess started at the Food Project when she was 15 and has never really left.
“We’ve built fifty raised beds for individuals in the Greater Boston area – Roxbury Mattapan, in public housing areas.”
When asked what it feels like to see people work their gardens over the years, Jess says, “Oh my god! It’s so fun! People are so grateful to have a garden! The families and children are so excited. Seniors are looking to stay active. The gardens help with the family budget. It’s a bright spot in people’s lives.”
As a young teenager, Jess had thought farming “was a weird thing to do.” Recalling her first Food Project day at the Lincoln farm she says, “I was from Somerville. I had very little experience being in a big field. There was so much more sky than there was in Somerville!”
Very quickly the Food Project’s mix of joy and valuable work captured her. She remembers a day that first summer when she and her crew were harvesting food for the Central Square farmers‘ market.
“We were late. My crew had to work fast and hard. It was so fun! We had to work together and do this really fast intense teamwork that felt really meaningful; this really mattered. I had only experienced that on a sports team before, where it mattered, but not that much. This was bigger than just us.”
There were hard, real lessons, too.
“That summer we were at Drumlin Farm, the Massachusetts Audubon property that leases land to many farmers.” Liborio said, her voice deflating. “There were other farmers there that day, and they were slaughtering their chickens. That was a tough day. I remember there was a dark mood over the farm just because all the chickens were being killed. Parts of them went into the compost pile and we could smell that for a long time.”
Jess studied and farmed at Hampshire College for a year, and then finished a degree in economics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She returned to the Food Project at 25.
“I remembered how much I loved working on the farm. I didn’t think I would stay but I ended up farming for the next eight seasons.”
“For me what’s different (coming back to the Food Project) is being old! But one thing I love is that there is an expectation that everyone who works here – young or old – is pushing themselves in evaluating their roles. That has been true in every role I’ve been in. The work is so challenging that no one can come into any role and say, ‘I’m good; I can do this.’ – Learning how change happens in neighborhoods, building community food systems that provide healthy food in Dudley or Lynn, opportunities for residents to be leading in that work – these are things that no one hows how to do.”
An example of this groundbreaking work is the corner store owner, Ann Sidalgo, from the Dudley neighborhood who, with Jess’s help, is opening a wholesale business selling fresh vegetables to other corner stores. Rather than vendors – even farmers – coming into their community, selling produce, and leaving with the community’s dollars, the fresh produce business becomes integrated into the neighborhood. Part of what makes this project function is that, because the other corner stores are close, there is not the need for expensive refrigerated trucks in the distribution. This effort gives the community ownership of their food system.
As a Food Project leader, Jess says her hardest moments are having to having to tell a youth they cannot be part of the next season’s returning crew. Each season begins with 36 new youths and 22 returning youths.
“We have so many young people and cannot hire them all. There are tears when a youth is told they cannot be part of the returning group.”
At 38, Jess already has a long view of the Food Project’s impact on her life.
“I am most grateful to Food Project founder Ward Cheney. Ward didn’t shy away from what is unlikely – young people in Boston, out growing food – harvesting and distributing food with young people from the suburbs. He coined the first Food Project mission statement, ‘for love of land and people.’ That is still a guiding idea for me, it’s what is important for me.”
This handful of Food Project alumni tell a consistent story of personal philosophies honed, visions expanded, and futures shaped by the simple idea of putting young people on a farm together and teaching them how to grow food. The Food Project understands the enormous lessons shallowly buried in that vision. Casey Moir names those lessons: “it is about relationships and having love be something at the center of the work.”
The Big Shindig, the annual Food Project event that funds this work, is being held April 26th at Boston’s Cyclorama. Have a great donation idea? Want to be a sponsor, or if you just want to purchase tickets, contact me at Haatwood@gmail.com or the Food Project here: http://thefoodproject.org/contact-us