Somerville is the densest city in New England, topping the population scale at 77,104 in 4.2 sq. miles of space. Somerville’s lack of open space and its rich industrial history (contaminated soil is a challenge that residents face when attempting to garden) allows for an endless amount of creativity that people are using to participate in the ‘grow your own’ movement. From porches to rooftops, raised beds to reclaimed lots, businesses, individuals, and youth are building crop knowledge and farming experience as a community. Although Somerville has a long way to go to create the kind of autonomy from the global food system that many cities around the world are striving for, there are features that should be celebrated for its innovation and forward thinking for a healthier, collaborative, and resilient community.
1) Mobile Markets
If a resident of the housing development walked around the Mystic Housing complex or to the North Street Playground in Somerville on any Saturday from May-September between 10am and 5pm one would be astounded at the hustle and bustle of the mobile market. Individuals and families can find affordable fresh produce, music, face painting, bike fixing, and healthy recipes right outside their doors. Three years since it’s inception, this subsidized market has become a staple dietary resource to these low-income neighborhoods. The market was co-founded by Shape Up Somerville and Groundwork Somerville as a way to increase access to affordable produce to under served communities. The businesses and organizations that congregate at this market included Enterprise Farms, the Boston Cyclists Union, the Mystic Garden Learning Center, and Groundwork Somerville. Enterprise Farms, an organic farm located in South Deerfield, Ma, made the trip to Somerville every week to support and supply these low-income markets with affordable produce. Their mission to grow a balanced variety of vegetables made available to everyone, regardless of income, is one to be revered. An important part of building a local food system is providing access to everyone. At the end of each day, left over produce was donated to local food pantries. The inclusion of these markets and the energy that customers bring to it is what makes the mobile market special.
2) Youth Grown Produce
Groundwork Somerville’s Green Team and The Mystic Garden Learning Center share the desire to spread gardening knowledge to youth between the ages of 6 and 19. The Green Team is a youth leadership program that provides employment to local young people ages 14-19 years old. The program combines team building games (which the youth conduct themselves) with job readiness skills like resume building and public speaking in various settings like a schoolyard garden, a legislative meeting, or a reclaimed lot. During the summer these young people travel by bike throughout the city to tend to the garden beds in every elementary school in Somerville as well as to South Street Farm. They plan their plots, plant their seeds, water the seedlings, and harvest the produce for the Mobile Markets.
The Mystic Garden Learning Center is another youth program that allows for garden exploration and inspires youth grown produce. Kids ages 6-12 can participate in the Learning Center’s summer camp and observe worms and compost changes, plant vegetable seedlings, and harvest greens. This summer, a grant was awarded to a few youth who applied to expand their garden space to increase their harvests. These youth showed up every week at the mobile market to peddle their free vegetables which always looked rich in color and flavor.
3) Somerville’s Urban Ambassador Program
The City of Somerville paired up with Green City Growers to create a hands-on intensive educational program designed to train 15 community members to garden in their backyards and in the community. Topics included how to assess a space for gardening, intensive gardening techniques, identifying plant varieties, cold frame construction, season extension, and an introduction to bee and chicken keeping. Graduates of the program then volunteered 30 hours of their time to existing garden related programs in Somerville. A few graduates spearheaded their own projects like building a community garden on a vacant lot and starting a seed saving library. This model of education and community integration creates structural support for people to get started growing their own food. Not only do programs like this encourage a sustainable mindset, but it also fosters a community unto itself. Graduates become resources for each other and for the city at large.
Somerville still has a long way to go before achieving true independence from the global food system, but these examples are to be shared, encouraged, and celebrated for its push for a more sustainable community. What are some ways that your community is moving towards a local food system?