“Thanks for getting my child to eat vegetables!” For Phoebe Fleming, founder of South Boston Grows, nothing warms her heart more than when a parent seeks her out to show their appreciation.
Fleming spent the first five years of her career working at South Boston Community Health Center as a registered dietitian. “I was very frustrated with the limited food access in the neighborhood,” recalls Fleming. Her frustration ultimately inspired her, along with friends and colleagues, to develop South Boston Grows, an educational community garden. After establishing gardens in 2009, they harvested their first crop at their flagship site in 2010.
A Focus on Youth
South Boston Grows was created for youth living in areas of Boston where fresh produce is often not readily available. Throughout the growing season, youth are engaged in both after school and summer gardens. Some weekends, the program plans large community garden events where many of the youth volunteer their time, working with adults and mentoring younger children.
Each summer, about 20 teenagers enroll in a nine-week summer program where they learn about growing and preparing their own food. In the mornings, participants work in the gardens, tending their crops. For lunch, they share recipes and use the produce they have grown. Afternoon activities include discussions on relevant topics such as nutrition education, homelessness prevention, and literacy awareness. Fleming and her team also arrange for field trips that include visits to various local farms. The youth are encouraged to express themselves, which has led to the creation of wonderful songs and artwork related to urban agriculture and nutrition education.
Another important element to South Boston Grows is giving back to the communities in which they are located. Throughout the growing season, the food that they grow is donated to local food pantries and is used in different cooking programs organized in the community. The youth who volunteer their time in the gardens take produce home, where they are encouraged to share, to educate, and to promote the importance of food access to their families and peers.
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, Fleming and her colleagues find ways to teach participants about the importance of sharing and understanding. “Theft is a small problem, but it is not as big of a problem as one may think. The youth who have taken ownership over the gardens for the last five years understand that these spaces are built to improve food access. They are happy to share the fruits of their labor and understand that a few tomatoes may be taken every so often. People in the neighborhood recognize this space as community space and are grateful for what has been established in each of the edible gardens,” Phoebe explains.
What Fleming enjoys most about her job is being able to share her love of the outdoors with the children in her community. She notes, “Having spent some summers with my grandparents in upstate New York, where the home and surrounding area were filled with delicious, local food, edible gardens, and even some small farm animals, I am excited that youth in my urban neighborhood are able to experience some of these same treats. I think each and every child should have the ability to plant a seed and watch vegetables grow… I am proud that South Boston Grows has helped many youth harvest beets from the soil, plant tomato seedlings, and understand the composition of compost. These are just a few of the lessons gained from urban gardening. The rest of the lessons are less tangible, but just as important.”
Program Funding Bears Fruit
South Boston Grows has benefited from an increasing focus on nutrition, one of First Lady Michelle Obama’s major initiatives. Increased federal funding for programs like South Boston Grows has enabled them, along with similar programs, to expand community gardens in the neighborhoods that need them most. “We are grateful for the funding that has been provided from the Grassroots Program of the Department of Neighborhood Development. We also receive support from foundations including the New England Grassroots Environment Fund.” Fleming recognizes that without their funders and supporters, the work that she does would not be possible. “I feel very lucky to have been able to get this program off the ground and couldn't have done it without a supportive board, engaged youth I have worked with for nearly 10 years, and wonderful community partners from South Boston and beyond.”