Story by Anthony Zunino, Photos by Zack Armand
Take a walk through Dudley Square this weekend and you may be surprised with what you find. Juxtaposed against the local corner markets, houses and places of worship stands a longstanding community institution. It is the 10,000 square-foot Dudley Greenhouse, one of the many homes for The Food Project.
Built in 2010 in partnership with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, this greenhouse is part of The Food Project’s greater Boston and North Shore initiative to bring sustainable agriculture to local communities. In Dudley, that involves not only the greenhouse but also two acres of neighboring urban farmland.
“Having a functional farm in this neighborhood is so important. It’s like a community park, it has so much inherent value for the people who live here.” said Danielle Andrews, manager of the Dudley Farms and Greenhouse, in an interview with the NU Food Journal.
“Ultimately, we want to remove barriers to allow people to become active producers, with support from experienced growers.” This support takes shape through community workshops on urban farming, resident-led cultivation projects in the greenhouse, assistance to community members who want to build raised bed gardens in their yards, and more.
Danielle thinks the choice to use agriculture as a method through which to build community suits Dudley particularly well. Specifically, she mentions the neighborhood’s large Cape Verdean population, who find The Food Project to be a welcoming cultural bridge to their home. “Cape Verdeans are very rooted in small-scale agriculture. They come and grow familiar crops like shell beans, corn and squash. August is the season for shell beans, people at the farmers’ market love them.”
Dudley’s diversity is one of the many things residents celebrate about their neighborhood, and The Food Project serves as a place where different people can get together and experience their community through agriculture. During busy days in the summer, the greenhouse lights up with conversation. In particular, community members love the cooking classes featuring neighborhood-grown crops.
“People love to share their cuisines with people from other cultures,” said Danielle.
But not everybody comes to The Food Project to interact with their neighbors. Danielle shared that since the organization’s founding, the focus of their mission has broadened significantly.
“It’s not easily definable, some people just want to sit and enjoy the farm. Other times people just want a break from the city.”
While for some people The Food Project is an opportunity to experience their community, for others it is an opportunity to experience nature in solitude. No matter people’s preference, Danielle says she knows the residents who come to enjoy the space will never hesitate to provide their support. “Whenever something breaks, I always know who in the neighborhood I can call to help me fix it.”
At peak season, The Food Project employs 120 local teenagers across all of its sites. These community youth get hands-on experience with farming that they otherwise might not ever have, especially those living in an urban space. This contact with soil and vegetables helps instill a mindset of sustainability for future generations. Young employees also get the chance to sell their produce at local farmers’ markets, providing fresh vegetables grown in their neighborhood to their fellow community members.
Outside of the farmers markets, The Food Project also donates a large portion of its produce to local food banks.
Jamal Herring, a Dudley Square resident, runs the food pantry at his mosque on Shawmut Avenue.
“Jamal is so passionate about bringing food that was grown in his neighborhood to people who need it,” Danielle said.
“We get compliments all the time!” Jamal said in a phone interview with the NU Food Journal. “Now, not only do we give people canned goods, frozen foods, and so on, we are also able to provide fresh vegetables like collards, salad greens- all grown in our local neighborhood.”
Jamal loves playing a role in the Food Project’s farm programs as well. “I’m a country boy from North Carolina, I love dirt! They built us two raised bed gardens, and I’m always referring to Danielle for advice on what crops I can plant, and what I can use next to extend our season.”
Jamal says the people that the pantry assists get excited about the gardens too. “A lot of the people we serve are country people, they come from dirt. They love to come by and look at our raised beds, suggest to me what to grow next. I bring residents in to look at the greenhouse, and they can see where their vegetables are coming from. It’s an amazing thing.”
Jamal’s energy speaks well to the various ways that urban agriculture can serve communities. The Food Project seeks to harness the passions of different individuals and bring them all together around food and farming.
“The scale of this greenhouse is incredibly unique,” Danielle notes, but The Food Project envisions their program model spreading to cities beyond Boston as well. Twice a year they run a crash course institute for organizations across the country who come to greater Boston to learn about community building through urban agriculture. The goal is that communities will become more sustainably-minded, tightly-knit, and resilient through access to farms and greenhouses like the ones in Dudley Square. The Food Project is a shining example of how food and farming can provide communities with far more than just something to eat.
Northeastern University partners with The Food Project to provide co-op and Civic Engagement Program (CEP) opportunities. Contact your co-op advisor or the Northeastern Center of Community Service for more information.