Appeared in Summer 2012 Northeast Flavor, New England's Food & Wine magazine
Integrating the healing power of organic farming at Serving Ourselves Farm with renewal of life skills at Boston’s Long Island Homeless Shelter
“Working at the farm, tending the gardens, is particularly suited to recovery. It’s a place to quiet the mind, meditate and focus on the tasks at hand. Growing food is a very clear activity; it’s not complex in the way a lot of the world is. The sea breeze makes it a perfect environment to work outdoors.”
So says Erica La Fountain, farm manager at the four-acre, certified organic
Ourselves Farm at Long Island Shelter in Boston Harbor, about the very real
positives of aligning the organic farm ethic with social change. The farm provides
food to the homeless, trains homeless individuals in a wide variety of skills,
attracts volunteers, offers a sanctuary to troubled youth while also serving
the community at large.
Each growing season, the farm yields 25,000 pounds of fresh organic food—vegetables, fruits and herbs, eggs and honey – that helps to provide 2,000 meals each day for 800 homeless persons at the Long Island and Woods-Mullen shelters. Some of that bounty also lands in local restaurants – including the swank Hamersley’s Bistro, Ashmont Grill, Tavolo and Barbara Lynch Gruppo, while 20 percent goes on display for sale at farmers’ markets in Boston.
The brainchild of Boston Mayor Tom Menino, Serving Ourselves Farm was founded as a vocational training program in 1996, as part of the Boston Public Heath Commission’s Homeless Services Bureau. The farm also partners with the City’s Office of Jobs and Community Services, which funds Youth Options Unlimited, YOU, a training and employment program for court-involved youth. For seven weeks each summer, a large group of youth from YOU arrives at the farm to lend helping hands.
“There are so many different aspects of work and training here,” explains La Fountain, who brings a background in social service, organic and community farming to SOF. “There’s the seeding, tending and harvesting, then the Culinary Arts Program in the shelter kitchen where trainees learn to prepare meals, as well as methods to preserve harvest foods such as pickling and drying herbs,” she adds. “We also maintain an apiary for the honey and to help pollinate the plants, and tend our free range laying hens. Our adult trainees become mentors to our youth participants.”
The farm is one component of the Serving Ourselves Program (SOS), an integrated, holistic program which focuses on developing basic work and life skills, while providing services to homeless individuals. Each season, the farm employs as many as six client workers, who receive shelter, meals, case management, education services, health services, and counseling while in the program. After graduation from the program, each client worker is helped with finding work and housing.
In addition to the training programs, the SOF utilizes the Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA model. Those who purchase farm shares in CSA are given a reusable bag of fresh produce every week throughout the growing season, a delectable stash gathered by trainees and volunteers.
“We emphasize kitchen staples in our plantings – potatoes, tomatoes, greens, onions, carrots and summer squash,” says La Fountain. “Then we plant 30 other vegetables in smaller quantities for our culinary arts program, farmers’ markets and the CSA, such as garlic, radishes, leeks, beans, broccoli, turnip, kale, beets, scallions, cherry tomatoes and eggplant.”
Like any truly sustainable and successful program, collaboration and inclusion are key factors. “The Boston Public Health Commission has a unique public/private partnership with the Friends of Boston’s Homeless, a non-profit charged with raising funds for our program. They recently hosted our first Celebrity Harvest Dinner. Each celebrity chef prepared a course for more than 100 diners, raising $25,000.
Ultimately, results are what make the Farm such a remarkable tool in transforming lives.
“Our trainees interface with all the visitors and volunteers at the farm. They share knowledge with others about their tasks, they answer questions, they teach. We’ve had trainees go on to jobs directly tied to farm skills – in the florist business or in landscaping. A lot of them lose weight and cook better meals as a consequence of working here. In the end, our great success rate in job placement comes from transferable skills learned here: accountability, responsibility, respect. Serving Ourselves Farm is all about a great physical and mental recovery.”