taking the words of Jesus seriously

At the end of this past December, my wife, Liz and I made a commitment to spend at least 50% of our grocery money at vendors in our immediate neighborhood.  Our neighborhood, Codman Square, is located in one of Boston’s marginalized and under-resourced communities. Buying fresh, healthy, affordable, local and/or organic produce is something our family values, but does it has not always easy in our neighborhood.  We don’t have a Whole Foods, a Food Co-Op, a Trader Joe’s, or any other stores often associated with the sustainable food movement.  We also find that the prices at niche stores are outside of the reach of our neighbors.

Some would argue that we ought to make the effort to buy from local farms just outside of Boston. We understand and value these efforts, but have found this would take us all over the state, for hours a week, spending a lot of money on fuel, and eliminating opportunities to be present in our local community. So for us, the adventure of “eating locally”, is more connected to the whole health (shalom) of our Codman Square neighborhood than the locally grown / farm-to-table movement.

We are committed followers of Jesus. Our commitment to local and healthy eating means nothing outside of that commitment. I find grounds of motivation in the book of Jeremiah: In chapter 29, the prophet Jeremiah tells the people, on God’s behalf “Seek the peace of the city” where they have been exiled to. Liz and I weren’t exactly exiled to this community; if we were alive during Jeremiah’s time, we might be more like a Babylonian couple deciding to go live with the Jewish exiles. The parallel is tricky and nuanced, I know, but it’s a roughly accurate way to describe us. One way to sustain our local community is to come alongside those who are already making a positive difference for the sake of the existing population.The Boston Project’s mission statement is to “build and nurture strong communities, characterized by God’s shalom”.  One way to do this is to work with those who are already enhancing the “shalom” in our community.

I moved to Boston in 2009, where I lived in a fairly marginalized community for a year-and-half.  Then, in 2011, I moved to the neighborhood where Liz and I now live.  In my former neighborhood, I was fortunate to have a medium-size grocer at the end of my street. Nothing super fancy, but a vendor committed to selling a variety of fresh produce at affordable prices. They also had some environmentally-conscious household goods (100% recycled paper goods, for example). I was saddened when I moved and found out that there was nothing comparable within walking distance. In fact, everyone even warned me: Don’t go into People’s Tropical Food Supermarket. There are rats. The meat is bad. They jacked up the price on bottled water during a water emergency. They do not care about the community.

I woke up on my first day in the neighborhood to find that I had no orange juice in the house. I had all of my ingredients to make smoothies, but no juice. I took up a deep breath and walked up to People’s, expecting the worst. Lo and behold, it had just been bought out by a new owner, the America’s Food Basket chain of Brooklyn, NY.

Over the next year, I watched AFB remodel the interior of the entire store. They now stock an incredible variety of conventional and organic produce options, while maintaining an inventory base specifically marketed to the local population. They sell more environmentally friendly household products than the dominant larger supermarket chains do. They hired about twenty new staff members. They work with the local health center to teach patients about nutritious eating options. This business is seeking the peace of the city where it’s located. It is a bright, shining light gleaming in the darkness that often characterizes the Washington Street business district.

We have spent 54% of our grocery money, so far, at America’s Food Basket.  We are excited to see their company opening new locations in Boston’s food deserts, and hope to see more efforts like this in the region.

In 2009, a Quaker Farm, Silverbrook Farm, responded to a request by local teens: start a farmer’s market in Codman Square. Nobody else was taking the risk. After all, this is the ‘hood, it’s unsafe, the people don’t want fresh vegetables, it will cost too much, etc. Silverbrook denied conventional (worldly?) wisdom and came anyway. Now, to quote something I found online, “The BOLD Teens (local youth interns) now staff the market, helping coordinate CSA pickup. In addition to accepting SNAP/EBT and WIC coupons, the market collaborates with Wholesome Wave and the Codman Square Health Center on a Fruit and Veggie Prescription program (FVRx), through which obese children and their families can shop at the market using their prescriptions.”

Silverbrook Farm also grows their food “with Sustainable Techniques which means [they] do not use herbicides, harmful pesticides on our crops. [They] follow this more labor intensive approach because we believed it is the right thing to do – for our employees, the land and our customers.” Not only that, but out of season, they cold store their food using solar power instead of fossil fuel energy. Finally, they are located less than 60 miles from our neighborhood. The cost to transport the food is significantly less than shipping from California or Florida to Massachusetts.

We have spent 20% of our grocery money at Silverbrook Farm.  They are a great example of how a farmer’s market can thrive and meet some of the nutrition needs of an economically struggling community.

There are plenty of other reasons to buy from vendors in our immediate neighborhood. For one thing, it’s much easier to build a healthy relationship with a small, neighborhood-sized business than it is with a colossal chain store. Because the catchment area is generally super-localized, it doesn’t take long to become a familiar face to any one staff member. I make it a point to talk with the America’s Food Basket manager every time I go in the store. It makes the shopping experience so much richer knowing that he is personally invested in the health of the community.

Smaller farms or grocers are better able to understand their market, because they simply have less people to keep track of. They can buy and sell more products that are relevant, and reduce waste in the process. Grocery giants expect to throw a lot away because they’re operating on a huge scale – while it might enable them to keep their prices a little bit lower, a lot also gets thrown away.

Neighborhood-focused grocers also tend to be much more conservative in their energy use. One chain store near me stays open 24 hours a day, except for Sundays, when they close at 11 PM. Shorter operating hours mean less electricity, oil and gas used for heating and lighting. They also demand that people do their shopping in a tighter window of time – perhaps passively forcing them to go home and stay in with their friends and family, or go to sleep, at a decent hour.

I recognize that many people work unique work hours, and the convenience of a 24-hour grocery store is necessary for some. But that model caters to a worldview that is incredibly individual-focused. We wouldn’t need 24-hour grocers if our friend who would shop at 4 AM knew someone they could call and say “Hey, can you pick me up this and that when you get to America’s Food Basket this morning?” I cannot tell you how much more I enjoy the simple act of buying food at AFB or Silverbrook Farm’s stand – I usually walk there, see a few neighbors (a girl from my church even works at the local AFB, how’s that for fellowship?), and am in a much better mood than I ever was driving to Stop and Shop at 3 AM, by myself, and walking around a desolate and dreary store with a few other equally desolate and dreary shoppers.

So that’s why we spent 75% of our grocery money in Codman Square so far this year.

We value local jobs.
We value energy conservation.
We value having locally grown and/or organic produce in our neighborhood.
We value relationships with the people who work and live in our neighborhood.
We value being able to walk to our grocery store, and seeing neighbors when we do.

So, seek the peace of the City in which you find yourself. One way to do this actively is look around and find out who is already doing it, and make an intentional decision to support and strengthen their work. They won’t turn you down!

Ben Cressy serves as a Greenspace and Community Organizer with The Boston Project Ministries.  He enjoys theological study, gardening, and working to bolster environmentally sustainable living resources in his neighborhood.

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