The words “Our food holds our story,” are painted onto the murals flanking the flourishing green space on South Street Farm, also known as Somerville’s only urban farm. Run by Groundwork Somerville, an environmental justice non-profit, the farm and the words that grace its border walls fuel the organization’s efforts of cultivating a healthier Somerville.
On August 27, Groundwork Somerville hosted its inaugural harvest festival celebrating the end of this year’s growing season. Spearheaded by Tufts senior Zoe Garderet, the festival included a number of learning booths at which attendees could practice making grilled corn, fermented foods, jam and salsa. Additionally, attendees were greeted with a full lunch spread made from the farm’s own produce and entertainment from one of Tufts’ student bands. Festival goers included a broad scope of Somerville residents of all ages, from the city’s elderly to its robust student population.
Attesting to the festival’s diverse activities were the student volunteers from Tufts’ own FOCUS pre-orientation group. Mathew Mabington, a Tufts first-year, recounted his experience working at the festival’s fermentation station. “It was cool learning new things that I had never learned otherwise … There’s an entire culinary world that I’ve never really met before,” Mabington said.
It is the learning Mabington described that incentivizes Groundwork’s programs. Through the farm and community participation, Groundwork stands as a pillar of learning and growth for the entirety of Somerville.
“My biggest goal for [the harvest festival] is encouraging more community engagement by bringing together all the different sides of Somerville that exist but don’t necessarily engage on a daily basis,” Garderet, who was a summer intern at Groundworks Somerville, explained. “In my ideal world, the takeaway from the event would be that everyone would be more actively engaged in the community and learn about the ways you can help others who don’t have access to affordable, fresh food [in addition] to just learning about the beautiful world of urban farming and urban green space.”
Groundwork has existed in Somerville since 2000, with South Street Farm opening around a decade later. Due to the urban nature of the farm, South Street stands as a robust example for what it means to both address food insecurity and nurture green space in an urban environment.
As a result of the pollution and lack of space that accompany city-life, urban farms face a set of unique challenges. Yet these challenges are one that Groundwork tackles earnestly, deploying techniques such as vertical growing beds, intercropping and soil rehabilitation to effectively produce around 2000 pounds of food each season. The organization specializes in growing culturally relevant produce such as okra, bitter melon and malabar spinach to serve the needs of Somerville’s diverse population.
Leah McCarthy, Groundwork Somerville’s Farm Manager and Educator, highlighted the work that goes into integrating growing spaces into the community.
“Our farm is, actually per square foot, much more productive than a traditional farm … That’s because of the amount of labor that goes into each square foot of the farm,” McCarthy explained. “Because we produce everything organically … there’s a lot of weeding, a lot of trellising, we focus on growing vertically, [and] taking care of our soil footweb so we can really rehabilitate the soil and make sure we’re taking care of the ground in a way that allows us to produce as much food as we can.”
While South Street Farm is the crux of Groundwork Somerville’s efforts, its output is not the organization’s full reach. Throughout the United States, there are a number of food deserts, which are areas with limited access to affordable food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines urban food deserts in areas in which at least 33% of the population lives over a mile from the nearest grocery store. Additionally, areas with higher levels of poverty are more likely to be impacted, and in Massachusetts alone, 2.8 million residents living in low-income areas lack access to grocery stores.
Groundwork Somerville seeks to combat food deserts and inequities by providing food at a reduced cost to underserved areas in Somerville, partnering with other food justice non-profits such as Project Soup and pairing with the Somerville Mobile Farmers Market.
During the pandemic, Groundwork provided food to the at-risk populations unable to venture to grocery stores. Groundwork additionally crusades against food inequities through early learning education, and by fostering student gardens at schools across the city of Somerville. Tufts students might also recall the work that Groundwork does on campus every year with its Maple Syrup Project.
Despite Groundwork’s reach, the organization is facing additional changes as a result of Somerville’s continued development. The Green Line Extension, and the ensuing landscape changes, have necessitated the move of South Street Farm. Currently, the farm sits between an expanding biotech lab and lots destined for residential development. Evolving city plans have resulted in the farm's eventual displacement, yet Groundwork and its board fortunately continue to work with state officials and developers to find a new location for the farm.
Saladin Islam, Groundwork’s vice president of the board of directors, explained that South Street Farm will stay in its current location for a few more years.
Islam added that the location for the new farm will be a hustling and fully developed area with a lot of traffic. “It makes it even more important for us, who support low income communities and give back to our mentor farmers to be in that area to represent Somerville,” Islam explained. “And ultimately, once we do move, [we’re] hopefully going to put in measures where we work with community land trusts to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
As Groundwork Somerville continues to serve the city, telling the stories of Somerville’s unique population through food justice and education, residents can become involved with the organization through volunteering and attending events such as the Harvest Festival.
“We’re working on maintaining and growing our presence in the community, being a space where people can gather, have fun, and celebrate their food and their culture,” McCarthy said. “I want to make clear that, especially with [the Harvest Festival], what we’re trying to do is let people know that we’re here and that this space is always going to be a space that accepts all kinds of people.”