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At Mattapan farm, Mayor Wu announces new urban agriculture office

By Seth Daniel, Reporter Correspondent

February 24, 2022

View article on the Dorchester Reporter site

Mayor Michelle Wu announced the new Grow Boston: Office of Urban Agriculture in Mattapan, a first-ever office for the city and one that will be under the Housing Cabinet. (Seth Daniel photo)

Fresh carrots and ripe tomatoes have been welcome neighbors for Marlon Henry and his son, Malachi, who live just down the street from Mattapan’s Fowler Clark Epstein Farm on Norfolk Street.

For them, the farm is a constant in their neighborhood and a weekly source of fresh food over the last seven years since it opened. At times, Malachi has gone to the Farm to learn about where food comes from – the ground and not from the supermarket shelves.

“I learned how to make apple cider here; and they gave me a plant to take home and we grew it at my house,” the son said with a smile.

“We come here every Friday,” said Marlon. “It’s good to be buying fruits and vegetables locally because many of the times with the stuff in the store, it has a long journey from Mexico or Florida or wherever. It comes in trucks from a long way away and that takes days or weeks, while here they might have just pulled it up two hours ago. They also put wax and chemicals on the stuff in the store to keep it fresh on that journey, and you don’t have to worry about that here.”

As Malachi described the Friday trips to the farm for fresh food, the smiles were evident on both father and son – particularly for Marlon who said it was valuable for kids like his son to know where food comes from and how to grow it themselves.

“If they don’t learn about this when they are young, it won’t matter to them and they won’t care about it when they’re older,” he said.

Both carried a smile on Thursday morning that was replicated by city officials and urban gardeners and farmers from across the city – from Dorchester and Mattapan to East Boston – as they walked the grounds of the Fowler Farm.

Mayor Michelle Wu picked the Fowler Farm as the launching pad for an expanded urban agriculture investment and mindset – getting fresh food from local sources in Boston as much as possible. To that end, she announced the initiation of the new Grow Boston office in her administration, and Fields Corner resident Shani Fletcher was announced to head up that new effort.

“This property just sat empty with just weeds growing on it for 75 years, one of the oldest farmhouses in Boston,” Wu said. “For the longest time, it sat here waiting for someone to notice…Seven years ago the community leaders, community members and residents came together to build something special. Because of that effort, we see this farm is able to provide food and nourishment to the residents of Mattapan and Dorchester.”

To expand on that success – and similar urban farming efforts in other parts of the city – Fletcher will head up the first-ever urban agriculture office for the city, known as “Grow Boston: Office of Urban Agriculture.” At the same time, the Office of Food Access was renamed the Mayor’s Office of Food Justice and would be under the Environment, Energy and Open Space Cabinet, which is led by Rev. Mariama White-Hammond.

Grow Boston will be within the Housing Cabinet and will work to increase food production throughout Boston; develop and implement innovative food production strategies; provide technical assistance to prospective and existing gardens and farms; develop food production resources for gardeners, farmers, and other residents; and coordinate with other City departments to expand citywide urban agriculture.

Grow Boston will also contribute to Boston’s efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change while addressing injustices inherent in the current food system, according to Wu.

“Urban agriculture, including community gardens, urban farms, food forests, and other ways of growing food in the city, can directly strengthen our local food system, mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis and ensure equitable access to healthy food in Boston,” Wu added.

For Fletcher, who previously served in the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), coming full circle to something she loves like gardening and farming is very refreshing.

A resident of Fields Corner, she said she was often “forced” to snap peas on the porch by her community gardener parents, something she hated as a teen.

“It’s very funny that something I despised so much as a teen has become my passion and now my life’s work,” she said – noting that a horticultural lab class in college also enlivened her interests.

Coming out of the affordable housing and open space world, Fletcher said she hopes that they can knit together the worlds of open space, housing, and urban farming.

“Land use is always a hot topic,” she said. “I think a lot of cities struggle with a perceived conflict between open space, housing, and food production. I don’t think we need to have that conflict. I think they can exist in tandem.”

She added working side-by-side under Housing Chief Sheila Dillon’s Office of Housing (formerly DND) will help to make those land-use decisions complimentary instead of confrontational. She said she envisions neighborhoods where residents live, play, and grow food together.

Grow Boston Director Shani Fletcher (second from left) with founding advisory board members Apolo Catala of Codman Square Ballou Farm; Vivien Morris of the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition; and Barbara Knecht of Strategies for Cities. (Seth Daniel photo)

State Rep. Russell Holmes said the new investment by the City into urban agriculture took him back to conversations that started years ago about residents growing food in the neighborhoods of Mattapan and Dorchester.

“It makes a difference when we get our own food out of the ground or here at the farm stand,” he said. “It’s way different than being picked in California, put on a truck and getting to Boston two weeks later. It’s way different than getting that same produce here that maybe came out of the ground as recently as two hours before.”

Pat Spence, executive director of the Urban Farming Institute at the Fowler Farm, said that children – such as Malachi Henry – need to know where food comes from as there is power in such a thing.

“Children will now know a carrot comes out of the ground and not from a freezer bag with the name ‘Birdseye’ on it,” she said. “That’s what we’re doing here today.”

Wu said the practical implementation of the announcement is already underway, following a 2019 ordinance passed by the City Council that established new rules for how City vendors and departments source food. She said one of the quickest ways to get local food sourced to residents is through places like Boston Public Schools.

Wu said there has been a months-long process to analyze the ingredients in school meals to find out how to make them more nutritious using locally sourced food coming from urban farming sites like the Fowler Farm. “That implementation is already underway.”

“We are looking at ways to get existing vendors to do better on that area or get new vendors who will see the potential of securing local food in Boston,” she added.

The mayor’s office noted that Boston was one of the first cities to establish a zoning change that allowed for urban framing, and to move towards major food production on urban farms. In the past three years, more than 16 food production sites have been completed or begun construction.

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