The Massachusetts Avenue Project in Buffalo, New York, is fostering healthy food access opportunities and social change education for young adults. Its mission is to “nurture the growth of a diverse and equitable local food system and promote local economic opportunities, access to affordable, nutritious food, and social change education.” Food Tank had the opportunity to interview with Danielle Rovillo, Markets Director of the Massachusetts Avenue Project.

Food Tank (FT): Please share how The Massachusetts Avenue Project was started and how the organization has grown.

Danielle Rovillo (DR): Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) was started by neighborhood residents in 1992 as a block club and incorporated as a nonprofit in 2000. The original objective was to grow food, beautify the neighborhood, and bring people together. Over time, the organization has grown, but two main foci remain: to work with and help develop young people into productive adults and advocates for food equity and to ensure fresh and nutritious food is accessible to those who need it most. Today, MAP employs 50 teenagers and grows over 80 varieties of vegetables on 14 city lots. MAP also maintains the first aquaponics system in Buffalo and raises tilapia, a couple of really cool koi, and other aquaculture.

To get the food where it needs to be, MAP operates the Mobile Market, a farm stand on wheels. MAP brings fresh fruits and veggies from their urban farm and local partner farms to areas that do not otherwise have easy access to fresh food. MAP also plays a role in Buffalo’s Food Policy Council.

FT: Please describe the Growing Green Youth Program and Growing Green Urban Farm. How are these programs affecting the community?

DR: MAP’s Growing Green Youth program hires two groups of teens in the summer and one group during the school year. Teens new to the organization learn how the food system brings food to their plate. We empower them with knowledge about growing, cooking, and eating fresh food as well as offer support in their pursuit of education and career development. Teens who return as ‘veterans’ compete for positions in our three main work groups: Farm and Garden; Nutrition and Enterprise; and Citizenship and Organizing. All of our work with teens centers around our mission to improve access to fresh food for all. Their work is documented on their blog.

The Growing Green Urban Farm is a full-scale production farm. We plan our crops around sales on the Mobile Market. Our main crop and best seller in 2015 was collard greens. We also grew salad greens, herbs, beets, radishes, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplants.

These programs contribute to Buffalo’s communities in many different ways. First, all of our teens graduate high school and an overwhelming majority head to college. Our teens become advocates for food equity and representatives of our organization, and also gain leadership, public speaking, and self-sufficiency skills. Secondly, the farm feeds so many people! We distributed about 18,000 pounds of food in 2014 to over 1,200 individuals. We have educators at each site, offer recipes, and try to instill confidence in our shoppers that they can execute tasty recipes at home.

FT: What is a recent accomplishment or project that the Massachusetts Avenue Project is proud of? Please explain.

DR: We are on the brink of a really big change. We are building a new farmhouse with training space, meeting space, cold storage, tool storage, and more! Currently, we operate out of many spaces in our community. Our main office is in the heart of a small, urban commercial district. Our farm is almost a mile away in a residential neighborhood. We do all of our cooking with teens in a nearby church kitchen. Our farm tools and supplies are housed in a vacant home on one of the lots we farm on. The walking from place to place, the disconnect between facilities, and the absence of adequate food storage on-site all contributed to the need for an inclusive space.

FT: Please share a recent challenge that you have had with the Massachusetts Avenue Project.

DR: One of the biggest challenges I face is language. We have a huge population of amazing new Americans, many of whom have little English and rely on their children for translation. This can make our work very tough! For example, we grew noodle beans the past few summers. They were popular at a market with many Bangladeshi customers, none of whom spoke much English past, “How much?” It was exciting to see how happy these families were to get the beans, but I’ve been dying to know what they make with them. I wish I could ask!

Another great example: one of our teens, Khadijah, is from Kenya originally and spends most of her time in the summer with me at Mobile Market sites. One day, a large family passed our stand. The woman muttered something as she walked by, and I heard Khadijah say something to her in a different language. The entire family turned around and entered our stand. After talking to Khadijah, the family purchased three bags of produce, which is an awful lot compared to most customers at our stands. Khadijah helped this family understand an incentive program we had for food stamp recipients called Double Up Food Bucks. There was absolutely no way I could have explained anything about food stamps to this family. Khadijah made this family’s visit to our farm stand possible. I remind her often how important this is and how proud I am to have her on the stand with me.

FT: How can individuals become involved in the Massachusetts Avenue Project?

DR: There are a number of ways you can become involved with MAP. First, anyone who eats fresh food or wants to eat fresh food in Buffalo can support our work by shopping at our Mobile Market stands. MAP also has volunteer projects on the farm in the spring and fall, and we hold a farm tour each week from spring through late fall. If you’re interested in MAP but not close by, you can support our work by joining the conversation on social media. Connect with us, support an event or drive, share our page with a friend, and drop us a comment or two. We love hearing what is going on in other communities, and making connections is very important to us.