March 25th / 10:00am / Green City Growers Office / 40F / Overcast
Today marks the first of four consecutive weekends of the Somerville Urban Agriculture Ambassador Program (SUAAP). Very fortunate to be one of 23 Somerville representatives for this opportunity. Committing to this program not only offers me a dedicated 6-hour weekly jam to learn about the "how-tos" of urban agriculture, it is also a great chance to observe the structure of a successful community-building program, understand private-public mechanisms, engage with fellow Somerville residents on their aspirations. Through this 4-part series, I hope to build a case study showing how a municipal-driven program integrates local businesses, grassroot efforts and citizen volunteerism. With this shared knowledge, I hope to encourage cities around the world to adopt similar initiatives.
Early Inspirations - Shape Up Somerville
This week's session started off with an overview of the history of Somerville Urban Agriculture. The public-private efforts that form the building blocks of the city's Urban Agriculture initiative was inspired by the success of a city-wide program - Shape Up Somerville. A 15 year old program that began in 2002 as a CDC-funded research, it was a collaboration between Somerville community members and Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science. Together, they set a precedent in community responsiveness for childhood obesity prevention in 1st-3rd graders through environmental change. As stated in a 2007 cover story on The Wall Street Journal: As Child Obesity Surges, One Town Finds Way to Slim, "the Somerville study is believed to be the first controlled experiment demonstrating the value of a community-wide effort." Over the years, Shape Up Somerville has evolved from its research beginnings to an initiative of the City of Somerville’s Health and Human Services Department, which builds healthy communities in Somerville through partnerships, programming, and policy related to food systems and active living.
Shape Up Somerville was one of 12 programs nationwide to receive the highest level of recognition from past First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative and the National League of Cities. As part of the celebratory national tour, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone had the opportunity to meet Will Allen, a well regarded leader in urban agriculture for his work as the head of Growing Power, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization and land trust that promotes healthy food access to communities. Curtatone also visited Erika Allen, national projects director for Growing Power, in Chicago, where she established 9 urban agriculture and food system projects. “Chicago has done some really amazing things to inspire and incentivize urban farming,” said the mayor. “That really was a catalyst for firming up our response to urban agriculture.”
Somerville - The First city in Massachusetts to Pass an Urban Agriculture Ordinance in 2012
These early inspirations eventually birthed the Mayor's Urban Agriculture Initiative. In 2012, following approvals by the City's Board of Aldermen (Aug. 16), Planning Board (Aug. 16) and Board of Health (Sept. 20) , Mayor Curtatone announced on September 23, 2012 that Somerville is now the first city in Massachusetts to pass an Urban Agriculture Ordinance. This ordinance establishes formal guidelines for urban farming and gardening, the keeping of chickens and bees, and other policies governing the growth and sale of agricultural products in an urban setting. As a means to simplify the ordinance and regulations, the city created a support document called Somerville's ABC's of Urban Agriculture, incentivizing locals to practice urban agriculture. Along with the ordinance and Board of Health Urban Agriculture Policies & Regulations, the city and Green City Growers also launched the Somerville Urban Agriculture Ambassador Program in 2013, a community training program five years in the running.
Somerville Fifth Graders Invited to White House Gardening Events with Michelle Obama
Adding a splash of Somerville urban agriculture pride! Did you know that in 2013, five Healey School students were invited to the White House to garden with our past First Lady Michelle Obama? Their first visit was for the 5th annual White House Kitchen Garden planting event. Along with 25 other students from across the country, they worked alongside the Michelle Obama, members of her Let’s Move staff, and military veterans from the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) and Archi’s Acres. A variety of fruits and vegetables used in preparation of White House meals were planted. They returned to the capital a few months later to participate in the Harvest Garden event.
Funded by the city, SUAAP is intended as a pay-it-forward community service. I applaud the city's progressive thinking and efforts in funding community building programs that do not always have financial returns as the priority, but have numerous healthful benefits for the people and environment. There are four components to SUAAP:
- Training - Four consecutive weekends of 6-hour training sessions, consisting of classroom, hands-on activities and field trips.
- Community Service - Each ambassador has to commit to 30 hours of community service by end of the calendar year. They could work with existing volunteer sites, organizations or form their own projects.
- Workdays / Somerville Mobile Farmers Market - For more hands-on experience, ambassadors can sign up for workdays with Green City Growers or the Somerville Mobile Farmers Market. SMFM is another excellent partnership between Shape Up Somerville and Groundwork Somerville.
- Blog Entry - Each ambassador shall submit one blog entry on the Somerville Urban Agriculture blog, a platform for sharing experience of their SUAAP adventures and community projects. A great way to grow community knowledge!
Raised Bed Construction
For the second half of the day, the group gathered at Green City Growers' workshop a.k.a "The Zone" to learn about raised bed construction, cold frames, how to lego-fit a drip irrigation system for a typical 4'x8' bed. A great ice-breaker and hands-on activity indeed.
We will look into how to get started on urban gardening!
Note & Resource
This post is part of the Somerville Urban Agriculture Ambassador Program blog series. It contains highlights, notes, and additional research gathered by the author from participating in the ambassador program in March/April 2017. Through this series, it is the author's hope to expand accessible, community knowledge around urban agriculture.
For an excellent elaboration with engaging diagrams of the above information, check out Green City Grower's book The Urban Bounty - How to Grow Fresh Food, Anywhere by Allison Houghton. While the author has no affiliation with the sales of this book, it is the main reference throughout the ambassador program. It is concise and easy to understand, highly recommended.