By Joel Wool
On a Friday evening, late summer in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva, a cluster of residents, non-profit professionals, faith leaders, city employees and urban foodies gather to witness community vitality first-hand. The long-vacant lot on which they stand—a former gas station—is no longer fueling cars, but there’s power in motion. Volunteers dish out plates of five-star potluck spread to beaming neighbors, musicians strike fine chords on the guitar, sing over the throbbing bass beat of vehicles screaming down Bowdoin Street. Visitors admire raised bed gardens and peer curiously at pocket plants mounted on the exterior walls of bright new, colorful sheds. The potential of this place is palpable. Driven by people, it’s already being realized.
This is the Dorchester Community Food Co-op, a movement to bring a full-service community and worker-owned store to Boston’s oldest, largest neighborhood. When successful, the Co-op will be much more than a food supplier—driving economic and social development and supporting other community-led initiatives. The time is right for cooperation: innovative, triple-bottom-line enterprises are growing worldwide. A 2012 United Nations “Year of the Co-op” declaration lauded the resurgence of cooperative economy, and—amidst concerns of corporate domination and national gridlock in the United States—the critical need for local efforts to address food access and job creation has never been greater.
From the beginning, the effort’s steeped in partnership. A close ally, the Sustainability Guild, has taken on youth and neighborhood development projects in Bowdoin-Geneva and along Blue Hill Ave., and it’s their work that brought the site of the potluck, the “Bowdoin-Geneva Community Hub,” to life. A new energy and recycling cooperative, CERO, composts leftover food. The city itself has given unusually leeway with the property after the summer café series, which kicked off a year ago in the vestry of a Unitarian Church and, later, in a revitalized urban garden, showed its growing power.
This isn’t the first bright light for the Co-op. A mile away and seasons apart, hundreds gathered for the opening day of the Co-op’s winter market in Codman Square. The inner-city bazaar—the first of its cold-weather kind to accept EBT/SNAP (food stamps) and a Boston Bounty Bucks matching program—pushed the line on how the city grapples with food, and brought an ongoing dialogue on access, affordability, and an economy that supports both farmers and consumers to the forefront.
Urban food can go wrong, and Dorchester’s seen that before. A hasty, top-down process to launch urban agriculture in Boston met with serious pushback from the community as municipal planners and local residents debated everything from green jobs to toxic soil to beekeeping and city chickens. From the aftermath of that conflict arose a visioning process by which many opponents came together and set out a real dream for growth. In the midst of all this, the seeds of a food co-op were growing in the background.
Farmers’ markets won’t end hunger, and not everyone will be employed as a market manager or an urban grower. But these once-disparate efforts provide a critical intervention into a food system that often has more to do with plastic wrap and pesticides than it does with food. Markets and a massive agricultural shift are part of what we know is coming: a true, local ownership of food, energy and water that empowers community to thrive and refocuses profit margin within human prosperity.
Myths and realities of urban food will persist for a long time. News cameras that flock in from the suburbs and from downtown often have a picture or two in mind: people supplicant and hungry, calorie-starved in a desert of nutrition—or, conversely, neighborhood residents disinterested in healthy eating. It’s simply not worth it to take the time to debunk everything wrong with these portrayals. We can much better by showing the (beautiful, diverse) faces of everyday normal dreamers building something better.
The Co-op is a community that brings clarity of vision to existing need, incredibly opportunity and an achievable, evolving mission, dreams small and large. A credit union. Bulk grains. Good jobs. A buying club. While challenges are many and dollars few, we haven’t yet tested the far edge of what we can achieve. Neighbors eating together. A winter market. Blighted spaces reclaimed. We’ll levy social capital, and not just financial, in this quest for an economy of solidarity.
It is, after all, all about the people on the ground. We are the cooperative movement. We are growing. We are strong.