While residents in many higher income communities enjoy access to organic vegetables and fruits through upscale supermarkets and restaurants, residents in a number of Boston neighborhoods have very few opportunities to buy fresh, wholesome, affordable food. As a result, many lower-income Boston residents suffer from poor nutrition and related health problems due to a diet of highly processed foods with high sugar and fat contents. In a startling recent report, the Mattapan CDC now estimates that between 30-40% of children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime; for Latina girls the figure is at 50%.
Brookwood Community Farm, a 501(c)3 organization growing organic produce 5 miles from Mattapan, used SARE funding to implement a comprehensive set of strategies to strengthen Boston’s local and sustainable food system by focusing its efforts to improve access to and availability of fresh, wholesome food for residents in the underserved Boston neighborhood of Mattapan. Through an innovative collaboration with a neighborhood-based CDC and a leading hospital, Brookwood Community Farm launched the Mattapan Food System Project. The goal of the project is to improve access to locally grown organic produce for Mattapan residents while educating the broader public about the vital role sustainable agriculture can play in local community development.
The broad objectives of this project are:
• Provide an organized structure for local control and decision making about food resources in the Mattapan community;
• Increase residents’ access to and consumption of fresh, nutritious food;
• Increase food security of low-income families;
• Increase awareness of the benefits of eating healthy food as a way to prevent obesity and related health problems; and involve community members in all aspects of food production, distribution and programming with hands-on farming and marketing activities
The work plan for the Mattapan Food System Project includes the following performance targets:
1. Formation of the Mattapan Food System Council
During the winter/spring of 2007, the collaboration’s partners work together to create the Mattapan Food System Council. The council is comprised of representatives of key stakeholders of the community, including health care professionals, public health organizations, churches, youth, immigrant organizations, schools, business associations, and members of the various cultural groups which make up the neighborhood.
2. Community Planning and Engagement Process
Once formed, the Council shall initiate a community engagement and planning process to envision a health-promoting community-wide food system. The planning process involves the community in analyzing its own food needs, analyzing existing obstacles related to access and consumption of fresh and locally produced foods. Youth working with the council will carry out a resident survey and research project and report their results back to the group.
3. Food Production, Marketing and Distribution
The Council will also use the information of the planning and engagement process to consider a number of food distribution strategies to serve a wide range of groups and income levels of Mattapan. For 2007, the project will focus on the creation of a new farmer’s market in Mattapan Square connected to Brookwood Community Farm.
A diverse set of organizations – an organic, community farm, a community development corporation, and a medical center—have come together to create a community-directed food system to promote good health and local control of the food environment, with a special emphasis on local decision making in the production, distribution and consumption of locally produced food.
The Mattapan Food System Project (MFSP), is a collaborative initiative between the Mattapan Community Development Corporation, Brookwood Community Farm, and the Boston Medical Center. The SARE grant supported a local public health initiative that created a neighborhood food system council connected to a local, organic community farm. The Mattapan Food and Fitness Council was formed during the project period and is made up of local residents who meet regularly to determine the food needs of their community and implement strategies to meet those needs in a manner consistent with the social and cultural mores of their community. Mattapan residents have been actively involved in advocating for their food needs related to commercial food enterprises in their neighborhood as well as in planning for the production and distribution of fresh, locally grown produce through a new, seasonal farmer’s market. This project also provided Mattapan residents with opportunities for direct participation in growing that food at Brookwood Community Farm.
This project is unlike many agricultural and research projects because: it was more broadly integrated into an urban community; the project partners include a community farm, along with a hospital affiliated public health/nutrition program and an urban community development organization; and it does not involve an investigation or trials of various cultivation methods or production techniques. It does not follow a research design, thus, it is difficult to write a standard research report.
The Mattapan Food System Project employed a grassroots, community focused approach to improving local health and access to fresh produce. Community meetings have been the at the core of this strategy. The Mattapan Food and Fitness Council came out of a series of community meetings organized by the 3 SARE project partners in the winter and spring of 2007. This group (MFFC), which has continued to meet monthly up to the present, agreed that the establishment of a seasonal farmer’s market in their community was a top priority, so the Mattapan Farmer’s Market began its first season in July of that year. The project partners played key rolls in supporting this community initiative, by securing space to hold the market on a centrally located church lot and doing outreach into the community to promote the market (MCDC), growing locally popular foods at Brookwood Community Farm, and recruiting other local farmers to sell their produce at the market (BCF) and incorporating cooking, nutritional information and recipes, along with other relevant programs, into the weekly markets (BMC).
Another goal of the project was to involve youth and community members in growing produce at Brookwood Community Farm. BCF staff worked with the Mildred Ave Middle School and Citizen Schools program to bring young teens into the project. These students played an active role in establishing a farmer’s market in their community and in starting and transplanting seedlings at Brookwood Farm. Through this grant, the farm was also able to hire two summer interns from Mattapan who worked with the farm staff to grow produce and sell it at the Mattapan Farmer’s Market.
This project accomplished most of its primary objectives: It created a neighborhood council (the MFFC) to address the health and environmental concerns of the community; It established the Mattapan Farmer’s Market in July 2007, which continues to operate during the summer months to provide local produce to Mattapan residents at affordable prices; It provided opportunities for urban residents to participate in growing food at Brookwood Farm through summer internships and school programs. Another strategy to incorporate local involvement and control over production had been to hire a Mattapan community member with farming skills (since many residents come from rural areas of the US or other countries and have farming experience) to oversee production for the Mattapan farmer’s market at Brookwood Farm. Unfortunately, we were not able to implement this plan due to insufficient resources. During the project period we were also unable to bring as many Mattapan residents to the farm as we would have liked due to limited transportation. However, in 2008, a van was donated to the farm so we now have the capacity to transport groups to the farm for workdays and harvesting.
The impacts are a bit harder to measure and the project goals now seem unrealistic, especially for a modest one-year project. Access to fresh food did increase somewhat during the months when the farmers market is in operation. But, more people need to shop at the farmers market, more farmers need to participate, more low-cost options need to exist during the summer and the rest of the year, and more education has to happen before we will see a noticeable impact in the food security of low-income families or an increased awareness of the benefits of eating healthy food as a way to prevent obesity and related health problems. The project has recruited a few other farmers to participate in the farmer’s market, but this has been difficult and farmer participation is restricted by the limited income available to them at a market that serves a low-income community. Community participation in the MFFC has been very productive and inspiring, but the project as a whole has not reached as many Mattapan residents as we had hoped.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
There really were no publications or educational materials produced by this project. We did make flyers, cards and posters (which were also translated to Spanish and Creole) for farmers market outreach. In addition, Brookwood Community Farm puts out a weekly newsletter with farm and harvest information, along with recipes for available crops. (These can be sent with the hard copy of this report or attached to an electronic version). There have also been media articles about the Mattapan Farmers Market and radio shows in a number of languages promoting the projects of the Mattapan food and Fitness Council. Since the project is ongoing, with some support from academic institutions and business, there may be future publications or materials developed, which would be made available to SARE or other interested persons.
This project was the seed of a much larger and ongoing undertaking, to make real changes in the local food system resulting in community-wide food security and health improvements. The SARE grant helped us take and important first step by linking one urban neighborhood to a small community farm and by bringing neighborhood residents together to address food and nutrition problems in their community. As discussed above, it is really too early to see any results, and objective measures are not really possible due to the small size of this project and the large size of the problem and community. However, the project is ongoing and we continue to make progress towards our goals by expanding the scope of our activities and strengthening established programs. Also, it must be disclosed, that a proper evaluation of this project, as described in the proposal, was never completed by the project evaluator (SARE funds designated for this task were not spent).
IWhile this project does not directly benefit other farmers, it may hold lessons and valuable information for those looking to reach underserved communities and strengthen local food systems. The Mattapan Food System Project can serve as a working model for both farmers and urban/suburban communities looking to create partnerships that are mutually beneficial. One thing our experience highlights is the huge, unmet demand for local produce and a shortage of cultivated land to meet that demand. This initiative could spark the creation of local networks that connect small farmers to needy communities, increase small acreage in production and the number of new, small-scale farmers, and expand food systems to include more creative strategies, such as coops, direct farm order systems, winter CSAs, etc., to increase community access to fresh, local produce.
This project began to explore the potential of grassroots farmer-community partnerships to create and strengthen local food systems. Our limited experience and scope pointed out some of the opportunities and obstacles to developing successful projects with positive outcomes for the urban communities and farmers who participate. Further research and development projects might look at these opportunities and obstacles to acheive greater improvements to community food security and health, along with benefits to farmers. Some of these topics include: economic barriers to farmer participation; initiatives for increasing cultivated land near urban areas, cultivation of ethnic crops, and productivity of small farms; creating access to production among urban residents with agricultural expertise or youth with an interest in learning; expanding access to local produce through new distribution strategies such as more adaptive CSA programs (which better meet the needs of low-income urban residents), direct order farm stands, volunteer for food programs, and others; comprehensive outreach and education programs to raise awareness of local food, nutritional issues, farms and farmers markets, etc.; ways to create or expand subsidies to both consumers and farmers that enable low-income residents to purchase local produce and farmers to be able to sell their produce to low-income consumers and still maintain the economic stability of their farms.