The Food Project

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse | 5/11/2010, 7:27 p.m.

The community-based group prides itself on teaching health through farming and nutrition

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.