“We wanted to start a farmers market here,” says Bobby, “but no farmers would come. So I became a farmer.” Bobby Walker-Crayton is a farm manager and trainer at the Urban Farming Institute. Sitting on a bench in the shade at UFI’s Sportsmen’s Tennis Club farm in Dorchester, farm managers, apprentices, and interns alike have gathered to tell me about their love for the farm.
UFI was formed in 2012 with the intention of bringing jobs and healthy food to low-income neighborhoods. They train members of the community to work the farm and grow produce, effectively creating green jobs, supporting the local economy, and getting healthy food onto the plates of city residents.
“We might not make much money but we eat like kings,” Bobby says, laughing through a story about growing too much callaloo. Nataka Crayton, another farm manager, holds a tall green shoot out for me to see, explaining that some communities call a traditional Caribbean dish callaloo while others use it to refer to a leafy vegetable in the stew. UFI sells produce at the farmers market in Mattapan, MA, a largely Caribbean neighborhood, and they can’t get enough of it there.
The “farm family” is a tight-knit group. Every week, the team visits someplace new, and this week they’re finally visiting a location that isn’t to one of the five UFI farms. They invite me to jump into a van with them and drive over to MeiMei, a Chinese-American restaurant in Brookline, MA. We sit below a chalk mural of a farmer that covers the entire wall, and we all order the Double Awesome: eggs with cheddar and pesto wrapped in a scallion pancake with a side of kimchi. The kimchi is a little tangy, and the eggs are over easy so the yolk breaks and runs all over my pancake. The pesto is made using greens from a UFI farm, says Irene Li, one of the owners, who came out to say hello.
Mei mei means little sister, Irene tells us, and she is one of two little sisters that the restaurant is named after. Most of the people who work MeiMei have lived or worked on a farm, and they’re proud to work at a restaurant that sources most ingredients from local farms and shops. UFI and MeiMei have had a long, fruitful relationship: they buy a lot of produce from UFI that isn’t pretty, that they can’t sell at market, and will ultimately end up in the compost. “Overwintered arugula, bolted cilantro, and things that might otherwise not generate revenue are a big part of how our close relationship with UFI benefits both of us – we get a discount, and they keep it out of the compost.”
A lot of people don’t like “ugly” produce; vegetables like heirloom tomatoes taste great but aren’t bright red and perky like the kind you see in the grocery store. Ugly produce is still nutritious and tastes the same as the better-looking varieties. It’s a big part of the farm harvest, and Nataka declares, “We’re bringing the sexy back to ugly.”
Urban farms are one of the most helpful ways that city communities can get healthy food. Food access is a serious issue facing many urban communities: many residents don’t live near a store that carries fresh produce and therefore can’t include it in the diet. Organizations like UFI, with five farms across Boston, are doing their part to increase food access. By buying unsalable produce, MeiMei keeps good food from going to waste and supports a great local organization like UFI.
Nataka says that one time they were the only vendor at market selling carrots, and so they sold out of carrots that day. But there were still plenty of other vegetables for sale. “If people could try more [produce] that they don’t know, UFI would sell more.” If the demand were there for fresh produce from the residents, then the supply would be created to meet it. I suppose that means that I’ll have to buy some callaloo next time.
Keep an eye out for UFI at a farmers market near you: Bowdoin and Harold Street markets in Dorchester MA, and Mattapan Square market in Mattapan MA. If you want to read more about how food accessibility impacts communities, check out Deserts in the District, a documentary about a neighborhood in Southeast Washington, DC.
Alice Kathryn Richardson is a new media photojournalist based in Boston, MA. She created The Clean Food Club on May 1, 2016, and previously spent two years working on Deserts in the District, a series of short-form documentaries exploring food access and hunger in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter @AKR_Pictures.