Gateway Cities discover the power of food

Fresh veggies, koshari turn food deserts into oases


FOOD HAS ALWAYS LOOMED LARGE in the life of Dimple Rana. While growing up in Revere, she helped her parents, immigrants from India, work in Indian grocery stores in Somerville. Later, she helped manage convenience stores owned by her family.

But working retail wasn’t her ambition. She promptly left Revere after high school; she felt like an outsider in a city not exactly known for its embrace of diversity. She went to college in New York; worked in the Boston area with at-risk youth; and went to Cambodia to set up a program for refugees deported from the United States. Then a job as a part-time neighborhood organizer opened up at Revere City Hall, and Rana vowed to make her mark.

“Growing up there, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship,” she says. “This time around I saw still nothing has changed, so I need to do something about it.”

Rana now heads the city’s Department of Healthy Community Initiatives, where she’s embarked on a path for which she may be uniquely suited—using food to improve the wellbeing of the city, whether through promoting the city’s vast array of immigrant cuisines or making fresh, local produce more readily available (a challenge she witnessed from the trenches working in her family’s convenience stores). It’s also about getting the city’s disparate populations to interact with each other a little more.

“We don’t necessarily have any community spaces in the city, where people can gather and learn from each other and share,” Rana says. “There have been issues of discrimination and prejudice, so through these different activities we’re planning we’re aiming to bring people together through food.”

Dimple Rana, who heads Revere’s Department of Healthy Community Initiatives

Rana is part of a movement of sorts in the state’s Gateway Cities that seeks to create a more local food economy, an effort that encompasses everything from community gardens and farmers markets, to kitchen incubators and food trucks, to promoting immigrant cuisines. The demand for locally-sourced food, for exotic culinary options, and for small-batch artisanship over mass production is well known among the upscale and hipster sets in the Boston area. But these trends are creating unique opportunities in Gateway Cities—and one could argue the stakes are considerably higher in communities where fresh lettuce, to say nothing of an organic farm-to-table meal, can be hard to come by.

Transforming a park

At the root of the local food economy are places such as the Cook Street Community Garden in Lynn, where on a recent blustery day volunteers sunk shovels into loamy garden beds. The sight is a far cry from a few years back, when this was an unkempt and forbidding park in one of the city’s roughest and most diverse neighborhoods, says David Gass, who heads the nonprofit that led the garden project.

“It was taken over by the gangs. That element takes over the common areas,” Gass says. “People’s response is you buy a dog, you buy a gun, you buy a lock, you buy all three. But you don’t talk to your neighbors.”

Yet Gass talked to the neighbors. A family from Nigeria that lives in a tidy house on one edge of the garden became the group’s unofficial watchmen. On the opposite side of the garden, a longtime city resident let Gass run a hose from his house. In an abutting triple-decker, the owner, from El Salvador, allowed Gass to set up a rainwater collection system on his roof. Today, longtime neighborhood residents tend plots alongside immigrants from Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa, several of whom are growing crops from their homelands.

As idyllic as the Cook Street garden appears, it’s an oasis in a food desert. This is the term for low-income areas where there is scant access to fresh fruits and vegetables—and these deserts tend to be concentrated in Gateway Cities such as Lynn. In a 2017 study, the Massachusetts Public Health Association found that the “grocery gap” affects 2.8 million people in the Commonwealth, with the shortage most prevalent in Gateway Cities.

While a number of community gardens have sprouted in Gateway Cities in recent years, their impact is modest—produce from small plots that might total an acre across a given city only goes so far. This is where urban agriculture nonprofits such as Lowell’s Mill City Grows come in. In addition to 11 community gardens, Mill City Grows has three urban farms in the city, totaling more than five acres, where the organization grows produce that it sells at farmers markets and at mobile carts it brings to lower-income sections of the city.

“Most residents of Lowell do not have access to fresh food within walking distance of home,” says Francey Slater, Mill City Grow’s co-director. “That’s especially significant in low-income communities. Most people do most of their food shopping by foot. That means in those communities, they’re doing their shopping at convenience stores, bodegas, and gas stations.”

Locally grown, organic produce generally doesn’t come cheap, which can deter purchases. While farmers markets have for some time been able to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (a.k.a. food stamps), these limited funds could go further at a supermarket or bodega, where cheap, unhealthy processed foods abound.

Last year, the state rolled out the Healthy Incentive Program, known as HIP, which reimburses SNAP recipients for the amount they spend at farmers markets, from $40 to $80 a month depending on family size. Attendance at farmers markets surged in response to the funding, which also provided a major boon to growers. Over a 12-month period, more than $4 million in incentives was paid out—several times the budgeted amount. As a result of the funding crunch, the program was suspended in April.

The effect was evident by mid-May at the YMCA in downtown Lynn, the site of the indoor farmers market run by the Food Project, one of the oldest and largest urban agriculture organizations in the state. Piles of spinach and other vegetables sat forlornly on tables in a nearly empty room. In prior weeks, the venue had been so packed that people had to take numbers to get in.

Still, the fact that SNAP recipients had flocked to the markets in such great numbers strikingly demonstrated that they had a strong appetite for fresh fruits and vegetables—contrary, perhaps, to the stereotype that the poor prefer junk food.

“When we do the farmers market, they’re so happy,” said Manolo Moquete, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who was manning a table at the Lynn market for Riverdale Farm, where he’s worked for nearly 25 years. “They’re so glad to get fresh stuff.”

Local food lobby

The food movement is a “lumpy tent,” wrote Michael Pollan, its foremost proponent in America, in his 2010 essay, “The Food Movement, Rising.” It’s best viewed as a set of movements, Pollan wrote, “since it is unified as yet by little more than the recognition that industrial food production is in need of reform because its social/environmental/public health/animal welfare/gastronomic costs are too high.”

Among the movement’s constituent parts are rural farmers, anti-GMO activists, environmentalists, people working in the fishing industry (who often chafe at environmental regulations), and anti-poverty and public health advocates.

What’s notable about what’s happening in Massachusetts and other states is that these various constituencies are coming together. Indeed, it was the HIP issue that brought these forces to bear, in the form of what could be called the local food lobby. The Massachusetts Food System Collaborative rallied farmers, urban agriculture activists, and others to press lawmakers to restore funding—and it worked. In May, the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker approved a supplemental budget that provided another $2.15 million to the program through the end of the fiscal year. For the 2019 budget, lawmakers are expected to designate about $4 million for the program, less than the $6.2 million supporters had sought but still a substantial increase over its allotment in last year’s budget, $1.35 million.

“It’s one of the best examples of a win-win-win for everybody,” says Winton Pitcoff, the collaborative’s director. “There hasn’t been anything that increased farm sales by $4 million in a year. There was the question of whether the local food movement has reached a plateau. It turns out we haven’t. There’s a whole other market.”

Food is increasingly becoming part of the portfolio at municipal planning, public health, and economic development agencies across the state. Food policy councils—tasked with reducing food waste; improving access to fresh, healthy food; and connecting the kitchens of schools and other large institutions with local growers—have been established in Worcester, Salem, and Cambridge, while Boston has its own Mayor’s Office of Food Access.

The state has also become active on the food front. The Food Venture Program makes a point of supporting pro-jects in Gateway Cities and rural communities, and the Food Trust Program provides grants aimed at addressing food insecurity. MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative, which targets resources in selected parts of Gateway Cities, is big on things like shared kitchens and workspaces. Private charities, such as the Eos Foundation and Merck Family Foundation, are also backing local food ventures, as are hospital networks, including Partners HealthCare and Massachusetts General Hospital, which have supported nutrition and wellness programs in Revere.

Americans welcome

Not far from Revere Beach, just up the way from the T stop, one can find in the space of a block a Colombian bakery, a Cambodian restaurant, and a Moroccan cafe. Yet, for all the rave reviews the Moroccan restaurant, Argana Cafe, has garnered online, its owner estimates that no more than 50 percent of the people who come in the door are “American.”

At Thmor Da, the Cambodian restaurant (which is beloved on Yelp), most of the clientele is Cambodian (about 60 percent) and another 30 percent is “Spanish,” according to Lin Leng, who runs the place with her family. Locals by and large don’t venture to this stretch of Shirley Avenue, a gritty thoroughfare in a neighborhood densely populated with immigrants from Southeast Asia, North Africa, and Latin America.

It’s this gap that Dimple Rana, the Revere official heading up the city’s food initiatives, wants to bridge. And she has some allies in the effort. Last May, students in the Tufts Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning completed a study about fostering a local food economy in Revere that has served as a guidepost for the city’s efforts. The report found that the culinary offerings in Revere may be even more diverse than public records would indicate. Through on-the-ground surveys, the researchers found that the cuisines of 17 different countries were available in the city.

“We saw that, due to the cultural shift in Revere from a traditional Italian-American community to one that has a bunch of different immigrants and cultures, food is really a way to have social cohesion with the community,” says Laura Flagg, who was part of the Tufts team and is now interning with Revere’s community initiatives office.

The office has been reaching out to would-be food entrepreneurs and offering to help them with training and permitting, and it’s working on drafting a food truck ordinance. Its most ambitious project to date is a series of “night markets” planned for this summer, which will feature local food vendors, a DJ, and games at several locations around the city.

Still, in attempting to build cohesion through immigrant cuisine, Rana may face a steeper climb in Revere than she would elsewhere. In the 2016 Republican presidential primary, the city went for Donald Trump by a wider margin than anywhere in the state. In a city where the foreign-born population has grown considerably in recent years, to nearly 40 percent, there are no nonwhite members of the City Council or School Committee. Even the city farmers market can’t escape these divisions. It’s heavily patronized by minorities, many of them SNAP recipients, Rana says, and there’s an attitude among locals that the market is for “those people.”

For his part, Mayor Brian Arrigo—a relative political newcomer first elected in 2015—is supportive of the food initiatives, including expanding food trucks in the city. “Our new initiatives all aim for inclusivity within our expanding local food economy, ultimately empowering the citizens of Revere to not only make choices about the food they eat, but also stake their claim with a business in their community,” Arrigo said in a statement.

Among the vendors who will be at the night markets is Diana Cardona, who sells “Maninuts,” lightly sweetened roasted nuts with sesame seeds that she makes with her twin sister and business partner, Angelica. The idea came to them during a visit back home to Manizales, Colombia (hence the name of their product), where nut-selling street vendors are an ubiquitous presence.

The sisters have opened a store just off Broadway, Revere’s main drag, where they make and package their nuts and hope to eventually open a small retail area in front. It’s the second shop the Cardonas have opened in the downtown area—they previously had a cafe that specialized in Colombian baked goods.

Diana recalls that around the time Trump was elected, a few locals came in to the bakery and said rude things to her. “Since you are the person who’s serving them you always have to keep your calm and always have to kill the rudeness with kindness,” she says. “I never thought they would talk like that. It wasn’t many, but they still buy, and they love my pan del bono,” she says, referring to a cheesy bread that was one of her specialties.

Koshari is who we are

On any given Sunday at Mill No. 5 in Lowell, you can find vendors behind tables laden with kale and other greens, fresh baked bread, jars of honey, homemade energy bars, and myriad other offerings. It’s where you’ll likely find Egyptian-born Sahar Ahmed and her daughter Dina Fahim selling koshari, a rice and lentil dish topped with fried onions and tomato sauce.

“The reason we picked koshari is it’s part of who we are,” Ahmed says of the traditional Egyptian street food. “We grew up eating koshari.”

In another time, Ahmed’s career trajectory might seem retrograde. She went from managing a nonprofit theater company to selling street food from the country her parents left to seek a better life. But Ahmed is not the only vendor at Mill No. 5 whose career took an unlikely turn. Bob Cuesta, a Lowell native, left a corporate job managing a call center to sell empanadas out of food truck, drawing on family recipes from Cuba, where his parents are from.

Dina Fahim (left) and her mother Sahar Ahmed slice eggplant to accompany a batch of koshari they’re preparing at UTEC’s Community Kitchen.

In some ways, the story is as old as America: the immigrant opening up a shop to sell a specialty from home—pizza and bagels had to get their start somehow. But there’s been a fluorescence of new culinary ventures of late, in part because there are so many paths to market—food trucks, fairs, public markets, pop-up venues—besides the costly and risky proposition of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

David Parker, the chief executive of EforAll, which promotes entrepreneurship in Lowell and other Gateway Cities, says close to 20 percent of those who have gone through the organization’s training and mentorship program have started food enterprises.

“There are amazing melting-pot cultures in the Gateway Cities. There all these recipes that are beloved by different cultures,” Parker says. “It’s just a skill set they have, and it is in demand. Americans are eating out way more than they used to. And people are much more adventurous in terms of trying different foods. So it’s a totally natural fit for many of the folks who come here.”

This was the case for Andres Jaramillo, a Revere resident who owns a food truck, Perros Paisas, that serves up hotdogs in the style of his native Medellin. In terms of volume, his dogs put the American variety to shame: they’re piled with bacon, crushed potato chips, and quail eggs. While Jaramillo’s English is limited, he’s plastered his truck with a map highlighting some of the attractions of his homeland. “Unfortunately, the first association is very bad because we have the giant stigma, which is Pablo Escobar and the drugs,” Jaramillo says, speaking in Spanish. “But what I’m trying to do is bring a different image of Colombia, of Medellin.”

Places such as Mill No. 5 and organizations such as EforAll are part of an emerging ecosystem supporting food entrepreneurship. Another key part are shared kitchens and food incubator spaces. Typically stocked with industrial scale ovens, freezers, mixers, and the like, they’re where entrepreneurs can, for example, make small batches of a barbecue sauce they hope will catch on, or do their prep work before heading out in a food truck. One of the most prominent is CommonWealth Kitchen in Roxbury, which hosts some 50 food enterprises that make everything from bone broth to Mexican sopapillas. The organization also conducts training programs, one of which culminates in a food entrepreneur pitch contest in downtown Boston. (More than 70 percent of the enterprises that have come through the facility are owned by women or people of color, the group says.)

Such facilities had been hard to come by in Gateway Cities—until recently. Worcester now has the Regional Food Hub Kitchen. The Dartmouth Grange has turned its kitchen into a shared space for food ventures around the region. In Lowell, the nonprofit UTEC, which helps young people caught up in the criminal justice system get into job programs, recently opened its Community Kitchen as part of its new $2.5 million Hub for Social Innovation.


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