What if there was a way for communities to create a food system, from land ownership to composting, that could sustain itself?
Community organizations’ efforts to create a sustainable food ecosystem in Boston’s lower-income neighborhoods offer a window into resident-led food security initiatives in disinvested communities around the country.
Dorchester, Roxbury and other majority-minority neighborhoods in the city are home to a grassroots, informal network of community organizations that manage food-related processes ranging from harvest to gardening to composting. This functional food system has formed through a series of independent initiatives, cultivating food-related services that bring wealth back into the community.
These community-owned initiatives “are a good example of how people in neighborhoods have some of the solutions [to urban issues] and are actually able to implement some of the vehicles to do them,” says Penn Loh, a senior lecturer at Tufts University who has conducted extensive research on the food sharing ecosystem in Boston’s inner city. “It’s a huge well of energy, resources and experiments for how we might serve the community more broadly.”
One such initiative is the Dorchester Community Land Trust — a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving parts of the neighborhood for community benefit. These plots of land become sites of investment for residents to create sustainable projects without the risk of the land being resold. While this model is not entirely new — community land trusts have emerged over the past 50 years as a leading solution for creating housing affordability in U.S. cities — the land trust is also carrying out a number of other food-related projects, giving shape to a system of community food-sharing initiatives in the neighborhood.
Gardening: This permanent community ownership of land has allowed for a more diverse array of gardening techniques in Boston’s inner city. From guerilla gardening to nonprofit agriculture, to commercial agriculture, the community has found ways of claiming land to grow food that can be either given or sold back to residents. While some of the engines behind these initiatives are organizations like The Food Project and Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), some residents have turned their private land into community gardens as well, sharing their produce with their neighbors. The access to land provided by both community land trusts and personal donations have allowed the residents of Boston to focus on growing their own food, as well as decrease their reliance on unaffordable chain supermarkets.
Food-selling: Several organizations in Dorchester that are dedicated to processing local food items for sale. One community-led initiative we’ve covered extensively, the Dorchester Food Co-op, is opening this fall. After over a decade of gathering investors for the project, the Co-op is realizing its mission as a grocery store that sells locally sourced, organic produce at an affordable price and with sustainable practices. Other food selling organizations in nearby neighborhoods include City Fresh, a catering company that delivers locally-grown produce to different community venues from their sister organization City Growers, as well as CommonWealth Kitchen. As Next City has covered, CommonWealth Kitchen is a food incubator in the city that gives local food businesses space to store their food materials and cook their meals.
Composting: Dorchester also has a locally-operated system for food waste collection. The CERO Cooperative (Cooperative Energy, Recycling, and Organics) was founded by Black and Latinx workers who wanted to develop a way for local food businesses to recycle their food waste. They formed a series of contracts with local businesses (including some of the few listed above) to help reduce trash levels in Dorchester, and they continue to service the greater Boston area in delivering food waste to local farms to create fertilizer that supports the agricultural economy.
From seeds to peels, Boston’s inner city has developed a mini-economy of local initiatives that help the community to retain wealth and sustain itself. Yet one has to wonder how this food sharing cycle interacts with larger, more streamlined processes in the city.
A year ago The City of Boston implemented a curbside composting program, for example, which will eventually reach 30,000 households in the city. How will this project intersect with the work of the CERO Cooperative? Do chain supermarkets pose a threat to the Dorchester Food Co-op? Is it possible for a local food-sharing network to thrive alongside these larger systems?
We sat down with Loh to discuss the relationship between community-, corporate- and government-owned initiatives, and how they might work together in the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Next City: You have done extensive research on food-sharing communities in Boston and the solidarity economy model. What were your key questions in analyzing these local economies?
Loh: I tried to follow where a lot of community driven efforts have gone, and how they are interconnecting and adding up to another approach to the economy. It was important to show how these things are evolving and how they might have even more transformative potential. The important takeaway is that [community food-sharing efforts] are already in existence. Then the question becomes, if they can work at a smaller scale, are there ways that they can work and become more prevalent? And are there ways to think about scaling and developing systems that reach more people yet don’t follow the standard prescriptions for how you scale things, which often tend to lean capitalistic?
What are some reasons why residents or independent people start local initiatives?
I have one student who started her own compost company. The idea was that, hey, here’s a sector that’s not being served. And the public sector is still trying to catch up on this side. One thing to pay attention to is that a lot of the way that garbage hauling, and recycling is done. Even though they might be providing environmental services and greening, there’s still a lot in that space that is very troubling especially in terms of how our workers are treated. Unless you’re in a union, [this work] can be very exploitative and actually very hazardous. So local initiatives are trying to avoid all that. Also, this type of work generates more local wealth. And that’s at the heart of this — this idea of solidarity, economies and more local control over all these systems.
Take a look at the Dorchester Food Co-op. It’s been slow-going. They had been building, building and building, but now, a decade after they started, they are opening the supermarket this month. So the persistence has paid off. If people were looking at it purely as a business with financial benefits, a lot of them would have abandoned the project years ago. But because they were community-rooted, people felt like they were meeting community needs, and it was important to the community overall, they kept at it. And good for them.
Are there ways in which centralized, government-owned processes can interrupt the flow of these community initiatives and food sharing networks? Are there ways that these objectives contradict each other in some way?
There’s definitely tensions. But I think that it’s probably more so that we have a whole system and an economy that is set up where the government has had to privatize more and more things. To fulfill the utopia of a free market, the government is put into a particular role of trying to outsource and contract things out. So they reduce taxes and reduce the ability of the government to have capacity, and then they have to contract everything out. It’s easier to contract out to just one company that says they can come in and do everything. That’s one contract, as opposed to saying, hey, we have 10 smaller businesses that we could work with in a city— let’s figure out how to work with all of them together. So there’s built-in ways in which the government has been forced to do business that favor larger entities.
How can we think of large-reach solutions that involve incorporating smaller businesses into the equation?
Part of what we have to do is public innovation. There was a big shocking report that said that [less than one percent] of city contracting went to women owned and minority owned businesses. That’s not a surprise, because those businesses tend to be smaller, given all the various disadvantages and exclusions over history, preventing folks from building companies, etc.
I think there’s a whole level of thinking, how can the government relocalize all this stuff and actually work with the assets that we do have? It takes time and effort and resources, and it’s not just about trying to be the most efficient. If the government can help support the growth of that infrastructure and our local ecosystem, then that benefits everybody overall, in the long term.
Unfortunately those are not the things that usually get quantified. What gets quantified is, how much should we have to pay this year for the services? And then the government goes to the lowest common denominator, which is that the bigger companies can offer lower prices, partially because they’re exploiting workers. We need to have some different ways to talk through the contracting process and compare the benefits and costs, which tend to be done in a very narrow way.
Are there any components of this topic that people may be missing?
This is about jobs as much as it is about providing a service as much as it is about creating a more environmentally sustainable system. I think it’s great, because there are people and leadership that are focused on it.
The city needs to figure out how to get out of operating business as usual, because they know that it disadvantages a lot of the local entities. They need to figure out what’s the best way to work in partnership with what already exists and the capacities that communities have built for themselves, right through the kinds of entities that we describe in that solidarity, food economy.
The role that the government plays there might look a little bit different than what it does now. But it definitely has to be more collaborative, there has to be more power sharing.
Punnya Kalapurakkel is Next City's Summer 2023 Emma Bowen. She is a rising junior at Boston College, where she is pursuing a double major in communications and psychology.