Elie Simmons never liked watermelon until he tasted the one he picked himself.
“It … was so sweet,” the 17-year-old from Boston said.
Simmons, along with more than 140 other high school students from Boston and the suburbs, are young farmers at The Food Project (TFP), an organization that focuses on youth development and food justice.
TFP trains these students as farmers to educate them about food and nutrition — and to generate fresh produce for city residents.
After working with TFP for three years, Simmons says that his taste for junk food — and conventional store-bought produce — disappeared.
“I didn’t realize how great an organic tomato tasted compared to a store-bought grocery store tomato ... You can taste what they pump it with to make it bigger; you can taste the pesticides; you can taste the difference in fruitfulness,” he said.
TFP uses no fertilizers or pesticides, and relies solely on sustainable farming techniques.
Founded in 1991, TFP envisioned connecting youth to the land and transforming both suburban and urban communities with “bonding” experiences.
Urban and suburban youth collaboration is “a key piece of who we are,” said Michael Iceland, TFP’s outreach coordinator. This model, Iceland explained, exposes youth to a wide range of diversity and challenges them to build community within it.
And while farming might not be considered a typical high school pastime, TFP’s youth programs manager, John Wang, said they “love seeing the connection food has with health, with the local environment and with local economies.”
With a small budget and a 2.5-acre plot of land in Lincoln, Mass., TFP inaugurated its first growing season and donated 20,000 pounds of food to shelters.
The group then expanded into Boston four years later, and, in collaboration with Roxbury residents, cleared the Langdon Street lot for growing. And then another small lot on West Cottage Street a few years later.
Today, TFP works on a total of 2.5 acres in Roxbury and Dorchester alone — 42.5 total throughout Massachusetts — and grows a quarter million pounds of fruits and vegetables per year.
About 20 to 30 percent of it is donated to food pantries and shelters like the Pine Street Inn and Rosie’s Place, while the rest is sold in local farmers’ markets and through community-supported agriculture (CSA).
TFP grows a wide range of fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, raspberries, spinach, carrots, watermelons, eggplant, okra, turnips and cucumbers.
Asia Tran, 17, has worked there for four years. TFP “made me care more about where my food comes from,” the Lynn resident said, “and I feel like the experiences I’ve had here at the Project have helped me grow as a person.”
Although her father was a farmer in his native Vietnam, Tran had little experience with farming or food before joining TFP. But that has changed: NowTran’s dream is to become a chef.
Fighting for food justice is also at the heart of TFP. “One of the biggest things for TFP is getting produce to everyone on the economic scale, no matter where you are,” Wang said.
Access to healthy food is a significant problem for many low-income families, since 5.7 million Americans live over a half-mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car.
And federal assistance program recipients and eligible non-participants travel, on average, 4.9 miles to their food retailer of choice, spending far more time obtaining food than high-income individuals do, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The federal agency further argued that food access has a direct relationship to dietary intake; the more accessible supermarkets are, the better one’s diet tends to be.
So with obesity rates soaring in low-income and minority neighborhoods, proximity to supermarkets is not just an issue of convenience, but of public health, they argued.
Cost is the other problem. Food prices are higher in the small convenience stores that populate low-income neighborhoods, the USDA acknowledged — and these prices are limiting. In 2008, 14.6 percent of American households were “food insecure,” meaning food often runs out before they have money to buy more. This percentage marks a dramatic increase in the past 10 years.
At 8.3 percent, Massachusetts stands below the national average of food-insecure households, but this number is also higher than it was a decade ago.
TFP takes food accessibility seriously, and has developed an array of programs aimed at eliminating these “food deserts.”
One program matches, dollar for dollar, food stamp spending at local farmers’ markets. Under that program, an individual or family with $100 in food stamps, for instance, can purchase $200 worth of produce at participating farmers’ markets.
To accommodate neighborhoods without these venues, TFP created several farmers’ markets.
This farmers’ market program combats the idea that healthy food is only for the wealthy by ensuring that high-quality produce is available to and affordable for low-income Boston residents.
No advance application or registration is required; food stamp recipients simply see the manager at any participating farmers’ market and will receive a voucher for use at any vendor.
But this program not only benefits food stamp recipients; it also increases business for farmers.
Supported through government and private funding, the program now operates at 14 farmers’ markets in Boston and its suburbs.
In another program, TFP helps families grow their own produce. Funded through a grant from the Boston Public Health Commission as part of its obesity prevention campaign, “Build-a-Garden” will install 400 raised-bed gardens in Boston, as well as teach people how to use them.
Part of TFP’s success appears to be its seamless integration into the community.
“It’s not an outside thing,” John Wang explained.
Jess Liborio, farm manager at the West Cottage Street site, also said that a lot of Cape Verdean immigrants live around the farm, and frequently stop by to exchange gardening tips.
But for an intern, Simmons, quality is what makes TFP unique. “All the [grocery stores are] worried about is getting the tomato out there, and not the quality,” he said. “This is what we’re focused on — quality — and they focus on quantity.”