Harvesting food and jobs from once-vacant lots

Ballou Avenue is one of those Dorchester streets that can easily be overlooked. Tucked along the Fairmount Line tracks to the southwest of Codman Square, it’s a residential street with some very nice homes.
But until recently, it was also home to a barren, 20,000 square-foot empty lot that was a weed-infested, trash-strewn eyesore. Today, neighbors here regard the lot at 100 Ballou Ave. as an urban oasis.

A few years ago, the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp. (CSNDC) — true to its mission of building a stronger community— gathered interested neighbors to figure out how the empty space could be better utilized. With nearly 100 neighbors now actively involved through the Friends of Ballou and the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, which administers the site, the lot has been transformed into a thriving green space that is generating jobs and hope for those who live nearby.

Designated as an urban agricultural site in 2008 by the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, the space today is a vibrant garden laden with the fresh, wholesome foods that are so direly needed in a community with little access to healthy foods. The OASIS — as its called — is also used for job training, for healthy food education, and for addressing the issue of economic justice for former prisoners who are re-entering the neighborhood. The Friends of Ballou created the acronym OASIS— which stands for Opportunity, Affirmation, Sustainability, Inspiration, and Success.

In 2014, a graduate student from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government conducted a study that assessed healthy food options in and around Codman Square. The findings showed that Ballou Avenue sits in a “cold spot”— or an area with very limited access to healthy foods. The study also identified Codman Square as one of the top ten areas of Massachusetts in terms of high obesity levels.

OASIS on Ballou, working closely with the Urban Farming Institute, started a 20-week pilot farming program to train and guide farm managers as a way to provide training and employment to youth and men of color. The urban farmers are participants in the New Start Project, a re-entry program that provides training, job referrals, and placement to formerly incarcerated residents. OASIS on Ballou is the kind of community action that fosters economic independence for residents while aiding in the reduction of recidivism.

The creation of these green jobs is an untapped resource for empowering and strengthening communities in more ways than one.

“The overall impact is it gives people a sense of hope that they are an asset, not a liability”, said Tony Smith, New Start Project executive director.”Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation does great work and the urban farming program is the epitome of restorative justice in which community members and reentry residents build social and economic opportunities.”

Jason Boyd, Codman Square NDC’s director of community organizing and resident resources, guided and supported the farm managers through the project. He leads the Men of Color/Men of Action (MOC/MOA) group, which works closely with the Friends of Ballou.

Last month, the hard work of OASIS on Ballou paid off with a bountiful yield of over 200 pounds of fresh vegetables, including eggplants, zucchini, squash, peppers, and tomatoes. The harvested produce was sold by Friends of Ballou during the Codman Square Merchant’s Association Sidewalk Sale in September.

One of the plans of Friends of Ballou is to provide a safe learning space for the small children who attend close-by child care programs. There are currently no playgrounds within a half-mile radius of Ballou Avenue. A tot lot with edible landscaping will provide a fun and healthy learning space for the Codman Square’s littlest yet most important community members.

Chanie Infante Louisma is involved in several community programs and writes about her experiences in Boston at her blog LifeByZen. You can connect with her on Twitter: @LifeByZen.