Growing Food Justice Through Storytelling in Everett, MA

by Emily Nink

Everett Community Growers shares the stories of its members within public and nonprofit institutions to change messaging—and policy—from the ground up. The organization operates two community gardens and will open a new farm in 2016.

Everett, MA is the sixth most densely populated city in the state, supporting 42,935 people on just 3.36 square miles of land. More than a third of residents were born outside of the United States, many of which are Latino. Located on Boston’s urban fringe, the community is dominated by convenience food: fast food, carryout restaurants, and convenience markets. Not one full-service grocery store lies within the city limits, and no MBTA trains service Everett. Nearly half of public school students in Everett were overweight or obese in 2011, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

20151024_140100Despite these challenges, residents in Everett are working to improve their food
system through community gardening. Everett was named a recipient of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health prize on October 27, 2015, which will allow the Everett Community Health Partnership (ECHP) to expand its programs. Everett Community Growers (ECG), a program of ECHP, aims to provide healthy food and improve food literacy among Everett residents through urban agriculture. And rather than focusing on food retail, ECG is sharing the stories of its members within public and nonprofit institutions to change messaging—and policy—from the ground up.

ECG constructed 10 raised beds at its first community garden at the Florence Street Park in Everett in 2012. In spring of 2015, a second community garden of 20 raised beds broke ground at Tremont Street to provide new spaces for community members to grow produce for their families. Through program evaluations, ECG confirmed that a majority of the participating growers were non-native English speakers and low-income renters in the city.

Food justice—striving for economic and racial equity within food systems and communities—was a key framework for ECG from the beginning. Kathleen O’Brien, Coordinator of ECG and lifelong resident of Everett, studied Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts, focusing on community-level health outcomes. Another Tufts UEP student, Kim Ettingoff, evaluated ECG’s methods within the framework of institutional storytelling, interviewing the leadership of the organization, partners within the city government, and a representative from the state to understand more fully how growers’ histories, recipes, and food narratives were beginning to shape the “localness” of food in Everett. A student group then created a story map in 2014 to share the narratives of gardeners from the Florence Street Community Garden online.

Through the story-mapping interviews, one gardener recalled her mother using coffee grounds as fertilizers, a practice she still uses today in the United States. When she was growing up in El Salvador, she carried water for garden use and picked avocados beginning at age six. After fleeing from guerilla violence, she traveled to the United States, working in restaurants and as a cleaning lady along the way. Other gardeners shared similar memories and food experiences, including recipes and growing practices brought to Massachusetts from a handful of other countries. Some ethnic food retail serves Everett’s immigrant populations, but many growers interviewed in 2014 described a lack of healthy and affordable options during interviews.

Most recently, ECG was named a recipient of a $15,000 grant from the Nature’s Path Organic Foods Gardens for Good contest. The new grant will allow ECG to expand urban agriculture initiatives in Everett by constructing a new farm for donation of organic produce to area food pantries. “This grant is a huge deal for urban agriculture in Everett,” said O’Brien. “Not only will we be able to provide more gardening plots and begin donating produce to those in need, but we will also be able to expand upon our educational activities and community outreach.”

New surveys will take place in 2015 to ensure that ECHP and ECG reach intended demographics with organic produce from the new farm. By partnering with Bread of Life, an organization that provides free prepared meals as well as groceries through food banks in Malden and Everett, ECG hopes to reach a broader population and better serve the needs of community members.

A land assessment completed in summer of 2014 by an ECG team identified vacant parcels suitable for urban gardening and urban farming, from which a third site for a new garden will be chosen for the summer of 2016. ECG is soliciting new member applications, and the expansion made possible by the grant will allow new gardening spaces for community members who are currently on a waiting list. ECG will work closely with the City planning department and city council to select suitable land for a new farm and to ensure that policies are friendly toward community gardening and urban agriculture.

ECG celebrated its award at a Food Day event on October 24, coinciding with events mobilizing action for local food systems across the nation. Residents attended the Food Day event to participate in site selection for the new farm and to provide input to a video project being conducted by another group of Tufts students participating in Professor Julian Agyeman’s food justice course. The video project will highlight the food stories of ECG growers and other residents to illustrate demand for local food and urban agriculture in Everett. By continuing to collect stories and integrate growers’ histories into institutional messaging, ECG is working to ensure that policy changes and institutional approaches to food access in Everett truly serve the needs of all residents equitably.

Emily Nink is a masters candidate studying Agriculture, Food and Environment. She completed a summer internship teaching educational workshops for Everett Community Growers and contributing to the growth of the organization.

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