Elizabeth Loder on making fresh, local food available to all – one tomato at a time

Elizabeth Loder“Only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” So sings Guy Clark in his cult country-western song. He was right about that last year, when the tomatoes in much of Massachusetts (including those in the backyard garden of yours truly) were hit with late blight. That’s the same fungus that caused the Irish potato famine. But he’s not right about that this summer. Growing conditions have been perfect for tomatoes, and we have a bumper crop.  At the Thursday farmer’s market in the affluent Boston suburb of Milton, organic heirloom tomatoes fetch roughly US$4 a pound. According to Mark Smith, the director of Brookwood Community Farm in Milton, which sells produce at this market, even that price doesn’t deter buyers. The tomatoes sell out quickly.

On Saturdays, though, Brookwood sells the same heirloom tomatoes for around US$2 a pound at the Mattapan Farmers Market just a few miles away from Milton, but they aren’t snapped up as fast. What gives? Brookwood Farms, it turns out, is on a mission, in partnership with the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition. The aim is to make fresh, organic local produce available and affordable to the residents of Mattapan, an area of Boston that meets many criteria for being a “food desert.”

Food deserts are areas “that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet .” To make healthy food more affordable to residents of Mattapan, Brookwood underprices its organic produce. They also donate a large portion of their produce to local homeless and domestic violence shelters and charitable organisations such as food pantries.  It’s necessary to price fresh food lower in areas such as Mattapan, Mr. Smith explained, because residents in those areas can’t justify buying tomatoes at $4 a pound when the average income is about $15,000 a year. Calories are cheaper at McDonald’s or other chain restaurants. For anyone on a tight budget, it is a rational economic decision to buy those highly processed, fatty foods in preference to more expensive fruits and vegetables. Vivien Morris, of the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition, said this may be among the reasons that Mattapan has very high rates of obesity and diabetes. The Coalition’s aim to increase the use of fresh vegetables in Mattapan seems right on target, and their hope this might affect diseases like diabetes is in line with the findings of a research paper just published in the BMJ. The authors of that study show that higher fruit and vegetable intake is indeed associated with lower rates of diabetes.

Brookwood loses money on the Mattapan Farmer’s Market, and could easily sell all of its produce to prosperous Milton residents. That’s not in keeping with the farm’s mission, though, says Mr. Smith. That mission extends beyond producing beautiful organic vegetables for wealthy suburbanites, and includes “preserving historic farmland through sustainable agricultural production that improves access to healthy, affordable, freshly grown fruits and vegetables in urban communities.”

That’s not a profit-making or even a break-even proposition, however, and the farm needs money to pay workers a reasonable wage and support operations. If revenue from produce isn’t adequate, how can they make up the shortfall? Well, that’s where those of us who attended a benefit dinner at the farm on August 19 might reasonably be expected to make a contribution. Among the immediate needs, explained Mr. Smith, are one or more additional tractors, so that machinery doesn’t have to be moved among the three noncontiguous parcels of land operated by the farm.

The benefit dinner was the first such event held by the farm, and I felt as if I had stepped into the pages of a Food and Wine magazine feature. This was not a Sonoma winery or the Tuscan hills, though, where most such idyllic magazine dinners seem to be. Instead, we were in the equally magical fields of the suburban Brookwood Farm, a lovely location at the foot of the Blue Hills. It was a perfect August evening with the flowers of the cutting garden in full bloom, with lots of beautiful butterflies and birds and a tire swing dangling from a nearby tree. The organisers had set up a long table along the perimeter of the fields, where we repaired after a tour of the farm. The table was not far from a barn where local food entrepreneur, fabulous chef and Brookwood board member Suzanne Lombardi prepared a delicious meal using local ingredients and Brookwood produce. Cheese from Vermont, wine from Rhode Island, and locally caught wild striped bass were served along with beet pickled deviled farm eggs, chilled summer heirloom tomato soup, marigold and mint field green salad, grilled eggplant with cherry tomato caponata, baby red potato salad with green beans, and hot milk sponge cake with peaches and double cream.

I’m sure this particular dinner achieved its purpose. I know I will be making a contribution to Brookwood. Who can eat such magnificent food and not be moved to help make its ingredients available to all? The event got me thinking that while homegrown tomatoes are a great thing, so is homegrown charity. Americans are used to giving generously to charitable efforts around the globe, but pockets of great need and deprivation exist right here. Contributing to a local effort such as Brookwood may not seem as glamorous as contributing to global causes espoused by celebrities, but it surely merits more attention than it currently receives. Perhaps, like the best tomatoes, the best sort of charity is also homegrown.

Elizabeth Loder is clinical editor (secondary care), BMJ