Nonprofit group makes farmers of urban teens

Food Project provides produce to local markets

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By Patrick G. Lee
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2010

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It sits on a plate in an office in Dorchester: a rocklike mass the color of Pepto-Bismol.

The hardened blob is the seven-year-old remains of a strawberry milkshake from a fast food franchise, which has yet to show any signs of decay because of its artificial preservatives. The staff of the Food Project, a local nonprofit that promotes urban gardening, uses the old milkshake as a visual teaching tool to impress upon its summer interns the importance of choosing fresh local foods.

“It still smells like a milkshake,’’ said Brittany Arsenault, 18, an intern from Amesbury. “I’ve known people who have licked it, and it’s tasted like a strawberry milkshake.’’

Less than two blocks away, halfway between Dudley Square and Uphams Corner, 20 or so of Arsenault’s fellow teenage interns work on an urban farm to produce vegetables and fruits for local shelters and farmers’ markets. US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visited the site yesterday, after she met with city officials about local public health initiatives that had been awarded federal funding in March.

Boston is one of seven communities nationally to get stimulus money for battling both obesity and tobacco use. Of the city’s $12.5 million in grants, the Food Project is getting $600,000 to renovate a deserted greenhouse in Roxbury and build 400 backyard gardens in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, the neighborhoods with the highest obesity rates in Boston.

The rest of the two-year federal grant will support a variety of initiatives, ranging from expanding bike sharing programs to reducing soda consumption and limiting tobacco access. In the process, the city expects to create up to 50 temporary full-time jobs and 250 summer positions for local youth.

“We like to think of the first lady, Michelle Obama, as now the most famous vegetable gardener in the country, but you all are a close second,’’ Sebelius said of Boston’s work supporting local and sustainable food sources. “It really is us learning from you a model that we can take and replicate around the country.’’

Sebelius said that obesity and tobacco use, as leading causes of chronic disease nationally, contribute to rising health care costs. Today, 75 cents of every dollar spent on health care goes toward treating chronic diseases, she said.

The grants will also have an impact on a local level, especially on those living in neighborhoods with limited access to full-service grocery stores, said Margaret Williams, the Food Project’s executive director. Each of the 400 backyard gardens that will be built, for example, can provide a family of four with all its vegetable needs during the summer.

For David Hicks, 18, this is his third summer working as an intern for the Food Project. This year, he is spending about 40 hours a week working on a farm in his hometown of Lynn, where he also goes to farmers’ markets to sell the peas, squash, kale, tomatoes, peaches, radishes, and raspberries he helped cultivate.

“When they told me I was farming, I was like, farming where?’’ he said. “I didn’t think there were any farms around in the city, but there are a bunch of them, actually.’’

This season, 140 teenagers are working on the more than 40 acres of farm land in Eastern Massachusetts overseen by the Food Project.

Hicks said he used to eat fast food several times a week, but as he continued working on urban farms, trying new foods and bringing leftover fresh produce home, the number of times decreased to less than twice a month. The temptation is still there: On the street where he lives, Hicks can choose from a McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and two Dunkin’ Donuts across the street from each other. But when he feels himself slipping, he said, all he has to do is remember the strawberry milkshake.

“That’s the one thing I had to get no matter what,’’ he recalls. “And just seeing that, I don’t think I’ve bought one for a year or two.’’

Patrick G. Lee can be reached at

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