The Transformative Power of Urban Food Systems

by Sam Jones

Last month, the Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference came to Boston for its sixth year. Topics ranged from bee colonies and school gardens to hydroponics and the farm bill. A synopsis of issues relating to food access to youth incarceration can be found here, while the entire list of topics and more event information can be found online.

“The price of democracy is eternal vigilance,” says Karen Voci, the president of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation. At a time when the outcomes of political debates are as predictable as a roll of the dice, the acuity of civil society is of the utmost importance. For the sanctity of democracy and its ability to serve the people, that philosophy is relevant in every aspect of life, particularly in food systems. Food systems have the ability to both enhance egality and take it away.

The Sixth Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference presented a slice of the world of which our eternal vigilance is both crucial and progressing. It was hosted by the Urban Farming Institute in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources on March 16th and 17th at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, MA. Each day of the conference included four sessions and one or two keynote speeches. For each session, attendees selected one of five or six topics to be a part of. This event synopsis is based on my experience from the sessions I chose to attend on the first day of the conference.

During the first session, titled “A New Approach to Food Access: Best Practices to Shift Systems,” the first question asked by the moderator, Raheem Baraka of Baraka Community Wellness, was “What is your vision for a New England Food System?” In founding the Three River Farmers Alliance, a farm product aggregation business in New Hampshire, Andre Cantelmo hopes to achieve community-level food sovereignty in New England. As a farmer himself, he recognized that small farms lack the clout to push through the local food system on their own. In response, his Alliance fills a role that allows farms to specialize, which lowers prices for consumers and increases demand for locally farmed produce.

Cantelmo and Shawn Cooney, of Cornerstalk Farm, both admitted that their business models currently cater to “the middle-class white woman” who can afford fresh local produce at the farmers market. Cooney hopes these “early adopters” can act as funders that help their businesses grow and become more affordable and accessible in the long run. They hope to expand the New England local food system from one that includes their farm’s name on a  farm-to-table restaurant’s menu, to serving their carrots in school cafeterias anonymously, because “that’s just how it should be,” according to Cantelmo.

The topic of commodity crop subsidies soon came up in the discussion. Instead of hoping the subsidy structure will change, Cantelmo accepts it but intends to build a system through local food aggregation that can effectively compete with commodity crop subsidies. On the other hand, Voci argued that there is room for democratization in the food system, adding that the more people who familiarize themselves with the system, the more educated voters our society will have. Perhaps a more educated voter base will be able to demand change to the subsidy structure that disadvantages many small farmers.

On the topic of federal policy intervention, both Cantelmo and Cooney noticed that Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) and SNAP recipients make up a notable proportion of their customer base. However, there is a visible access problem. Cooney noted that customers using HIP and SNAP typically come to his farm store in large groups by bus or van, indicating that significant coordination unrelated to his business must go into providing people access to fresh local produce. Voci, while encouraged by the use of HIP and SNAP, voiced her concern about the future of these programs under the current administration.

When asked if local produce can be integrated into the current large-scale distribution system, the major concern of the panelists was “greenwashing”. According to both Cooney and Cantelmo, large distributors like Sysco have approached them for fresh produce, which puts their names on a list of producers that sell to the distributor. After a while, however, these large distributors stopped sourcing from them, yet their names and the sustainable methods associated with them remained likewise associated with the large distributors. This greenwashing dilemma is one reason why Cantelmo has taken food aggregation and distribution into his own hands. It is also an example of how self-organization can circumvent a much larger problem.

Another session I attended was called “Job Skills and Agriculture: Models for At-Risk and Formerly Incarcerated Youth.” Captain David Granese from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department talked about a different kind of urban farm—one within the walls of a prison. This working farm is completely run by the prisoners themselves, who can earn time off their sentence in exchange for hard work, learning marketable job skills along the way.

UTEC, also represented on the panel, aims to reduce recidivism in Lowell, MA by teaching formerly incarcerated youth specific food-related job skills, while also offering valuable certificates that employers look for. This organization partners with the unemployment office, the division of labor, and employers in the community to identify where people with a criminal record who go through UTEC’s program are welcome to apply for jobs. UTEC also has an arrangement with the community college to get its members on a path to higher education that does not lead them back behind bars. UTEC is effective at achieving its goals—two years after the program, 78% of UTEC graduates are employed compared to just 40% or formerly incarcerated youth nationwide.  

Across every session, I was reminded why I want to study food systems in the first place. Food and farming have the ability to address seemingly unrelated issues, like crime and gentrification, in ways that can be uniquely tailored to each place and situation. Urban agriculture can breathe life back into a community. Food can make a success story out of a kid going nowhere fast. Food and farming are approachable avenues through which we can democratize our system as we see fit. Urban agriculture has the ability to actually create a more equal society while outside forces attempt to divide us. The Sixth Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference illustrated the potential for food systems to act as a vehicle for positive self-organization that puts a person’s health and well-being at the forefront of progress.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a passion for sharing others’ stories. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine and hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agricultural development and food journalism.

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