MAP grows food, and a community
Founder(s): Gary and Eileen Welborn led a group of West Side residents that started MAP in 1992. Growing Green was started in 2003.
Mission: MAP nurtures the growth of a diverse and equitable community food system that can promote access to affordable and nutritious food, social-change education, and local economic opportunities
How their food is distributed: Mobile markets around the city; Growing Green products sell at Wegmans, Lexington Co-op, Ten Thousand Villages, and several farmers markets
How to get involved: Participate in the Adopt-a-bed program; options include adopting a worm bin or equipping a youth farmer. Volunteer days are open to the public every Saturday, April–October from 10 a.m.–1 p.m., with public tours at 11 a.m.
Buffalo’s West Side might not be the first area that springs to mind when one hears “tilapia harvest,” but as part of its quest to make sustainably grown local food accessible to the public, the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) has introduced the city’s first aquaponics program. The self-contained circulating system is located in MAP’s hoop house, where a pond of 25,000 fish shares space with several beds of plants. The fish waste is broken down by bacteria and microorganisms, then pumped through grow beds to provide valuable nitrates to the plants. The plants then act as a filter for the water, which gets pumped back to the fish.
“It’s a really sustainable way of growing a lot of food in a small amount of space, and we are interested in demonstrating techniques like that because of the huge food security problems in lots of cities,” explains executive director Diane Picard. “More people live in cities than anywhere else and there are food crises all over the world, so we’re demonstrating sustainable ways of growing food intensively but in a way that mimics the natural system. We’re not putting a lot of chemicals in or creating a lot of waste.” This spring, MAP will have its first commercial-scale tilapia harvest, which will allow the farm to provide community residents and restaurants with what Picard calls “the healthiest fish you’ll ever eat.”
In 2011, MAP produced 6,000 pounds of mostly produce and distributed that food to local markets; this year, they’ll farm more than an acre. “We distribute food from our farm and other local farms in ‘food desert’ areas of Buffalo, where people don’t have easy access to fresh food,” Picard explains. MAP’s impressive network of community partnerships provides the farm with sustainable energy sources to accomplish this goal.
“We’re very excited about our new partnership with Community Beer Works,” says Picard, explaining that the newly opened West Side nanobrewery will give its spent grain and hops to MAP for composting. Last year, the farm composted 350,000 tons of food scrap; this year they hope to hit 500,000 tons. “We collect food waste from the [Lexington Cooperative], Rich Products, and the culinary program at Erie Community College on a weekly basis, so that’s another thing we’re trying to demonstrate: urban composting can happen in residential neighborhoods without being a huge eyesore, if you do it right.”
By offering apprenticeships, MAP is busy training young people to do just that. “Several are intensively trained in composting and aquaponics,” says Picard. “Both those things are emerging fields all over the country. We’re trying to think about our food system and job development and economic development opportunities, not just in growing food but also distributing it and processing it. There’s huge opportunity in Western New York to develop some of that, so we’re trying to prepare our kids.”
Training future generations in sustainable food growing practices is at the heart of MAP. “MAP started because community residents wanted to provide more alternatives for young people in the neighborhood,” explains Picard. “They hired me in 1998 to start some more youth programming. We ran several for awhile: an art program, a tutoring program, and a small garden program. What we were seeing in our neighborhood more and more was, obviously, a huge amount of land that was available, and a huge amount of teenagers; thirty-eight percent of the population in our neighborhood is kids under eighteen.”
All those kids needed something to do; more importantly, the teens needed jobs. What happened next clinched the future of MAP’s manifesto. “In 2002, the last grocery store in the neighborhood shut down, leaving people far fewer options to access fresh portable food for their families,” explains Picard. “So we partnered with [the University at Buffalo] to do a community food assessment of the neighborhood. Dr. Samina Raja did that for us; she is a national expert and leader in food system planning and development and she’s done a lot of research and development on food access in Erie County and the city of Buffalo. Then, in 2003, we started our Growing Green program to address food access, unemployment, and land vacancy––three issues that no one was addressing.”
Growing Green is an urban agriculture program employing young people aged fourteen through twenty. “We train them in all kinds of sustainable growing and farm things, but also so they can do some policy work, serve on steering committees, and even run their own youth enterprise,” says Picard. Growing Green employees develop and market a chili starter and salad dressing that sells at twenty local stores including Wegmans, Lexington Cooperative, and Ten Thousand Villages; the kids sell it directly at farm markets and holiday fairs. “They’re learning to run their own food-based business through that project,” Picard notes.
In short, MAP wants to grow not just food but a community. The staff is composed entirely of West Side residents, and “most of the kids who work with us are from the West Side, though we have had kids from other parts of the city as well, about fifty kids every year,” says Picard. “We’ve been pretty successful in launching them; a lot of our kids have gone to college for health-related studies, nursing, culinary studies.”
Though education about the food system and health is a primary goal, Picard points out that work at MAP provides a solid foundation for any career: “We really work on supporting them where they are and through what their interests and talents are, building confidence in them, and showing them there are opportunities. Most are low-income and don’t come from families where people have gone to college; even if they do graduate from high school, they’re not sure how to do the college thing.”
MAP is changing those statistics, Picard is happy to announce. “For the past four years, all of our kids graduated from high school and went on to college,” she says. “We’re very proud of that.”
Julia Burke writes features and food for Buffalo Spree.