Urban Gardening Presents Challenges in Dorchester

Written by Carly Sitrin

Carly Sitrin
BU News Service

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Tana Preston, 67, and Mary Keith, 68, have been friends since childhood. They met at church in Roxbury one Sunday when they were six years old and have been inseparable ever since. They’ve grown up in the area and have seen it change over the years, but Preston said that now that they are older, they are beginning to grow more concerned with their health and the health of others in Dorchester.

“Gardening was the last thing I ever thought I’d do, I hated getting dirty. I hated it,” Keith said.

But after retiring in 2010, she had two raised soil beds installed in her backyard on a whim and she said she began to feel passionately about eating organically.

“It’s comforting knowing where your food is coming from and you have control over it,” Keith said.

Preston said being at the mercy of chain grocery stores and fast food restaurants is a big problem especially in low income neighborhoods like North Dorchester and Roxbury.

“You don’t know what chemicals they’ve added to [the food] either the pesticides, or the kinds of seeds, are they genetically modified? You just don’t know,” Preston said.

People participate in a canning class at the Dudley Greenhouse

People participate in a canning class at the Dudley Greenhouse.

With this in mind, organizations like the Food Project are seeking to encourage urban gardening by distributing locally grown food and engaging young people in sustainable agriculture. Annabelle Rabi, 23, is a food corps service member serving with The Food Project. She leads the youth program helping to connect local schools with healthy food options in the Dorchester area.

“I think that there have always been members of this community that were really committed to growing their own food and being connected to where their food came from,” Rabi said.

She added that there is a strong rural immigrant culture in Dorchester where people come from backgrounds where their parents grew their own food.

“When you walk around [Dorchester], you’ll see almost everyone’s backyard has a lot of food growing in it and that is really unique for such an urban environment like Boston,” Rabi said.

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But while eating organic fruits and vegetables is objectively good for your health, there are hidden dangers to urban gardening in Dorchester. As an historic neighborhood first settled in 1630, Dorchester is riddled with buildings constructed using what are now commonly accepted as hazardous materials. One of the biggest problems plaguing the neighborhood today is lead contamination in the soil.

According to a study done by Robert Knorr from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, North Dorchester, Roxbury/Mission Hill and East Boston made up more than 50 percent of lead incident cases in the last 5 years.

Infographic courtesy of cityofboston.gov study by Robert S. Knorr

Infographic courtesy of cityofboston.gov study by Robert S. Knorr

Ciaran Gallagher, 21, a student from Wellesley College’s energy and environmental defense organization volunteers with The Food Project running free soil tests for local gardeners.

“This neighborhood has really high levels of lead,” Gallagher said. “Working in the dirt with the fine particles which contain most of the lead is dangerous.”

But she said the issue isn’t so much with eating the vegetables covered in the particles but being around the soil itself.

“That dirt is wind transportable, it’s inhalable, if you get dirt on your hands you can ingest it and that’s bad particularly for children under five. Lead is a neurotoxin,” Gallagher said. “So this neighborhood has compounded high levels [of lead] and they’re gardening in their backyards.”

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To combat this issue, The Food Project has been installing raised compost beds in resident’s backyards at their request and offers space in its greenhouse on Dudley street. But the organization attributes most of its success to the community itself.

“There’s a lot of cynicism in this movement, but I see it working here,” Rabi said. “it’s because it’s using something that was already happening in this community in a really powerful way.”

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