Losing the Farm: Insult Added to Injury in Nonprofit Eviction Fiasco

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2008_03_13_bos-ord-aus_016 / Doc Searls

July 24, 2016; Boston Globe

NPQ readers may remember a series of articles written two years ago about the sudden eviction of a number of nonprofits off Long Island in Boston Harbor. Programs for homeless people and persons in recovery had been housed there for years, with the only access being a bridge that, immediately after a new mayor’s election, was found to be unsafe and closed with no notice in a matter of hours, leaving 700 residents scattered to the wind. The bridge was later torn down at a price tag of $17 million.

At the time, we wrote about the immediacy of the bridge’s closing, leaving badly needed programs without facilities and the few belongings of many destitute residents out of their reach. Other Boston-based sites had to scramble to create sufficient makeshift shelters to replace those lost, and then they had to set about finding the people so unceremoniously exiled. The lack of recovery beds, particularly for women, worsened dramatically until other sites were found.

But also serving the people on the island was a thriving city-run farm generating 25,000 pounds of organically grown vegetables, herbs, eggs, and honey each year. The farm was worked by homeless residents and recovering addicts as part of a job training effort. As with the residents, the farm managers were forced to leave everything behind, and the crops so lovingly tended rotted in the fields. Only the chickens were saved.

The abrupt shuttering of the island was faulted for a lack of communication by the city. This was painstakingly rectified for a while, but is now back in full force with the news that b.good, an all-natural fast food chain, has been awarded the right to take over the farm in a no-bid process. It will split the produce it grows between its own restaurants and a camp for kids at risk.

The farm’s former managers, who have long advocated for the farm’s reopening, perhaps under the management of a nonprofit, see the arbitrary takeover as a violation of the public trust, let alone a betrayal of b.good’s founding story.

“This is extremely upsetting and concerning,” said Sara Riegler, the farm’s assistant manager, who lost her job after it closed. “This was clearly a backdoor deal, or the city would have had multiple proposals.”

“We had greenhouses, a tractor, a chicken coop, and a lot of other equipment there that was paid for by a public-private partnership to benefit the homeless,” she said. “I don’t think any of that should go to a for-profit company. This is city land.”

Unsurprisingly, advertising mogul-turned-philanthropist Jack Connors was the yenta in the deal between the city and the corporation. Connors is known as a mover and shaker in Boston, but in this case, perhaps the wheels were too greased.

The city says the arrangement with b.good is temporary and will give them time to consider what to do with the island. Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh, said in a statement:

While we determine if a bridge is a cost-effective option for the city, the two-year pilot license agreement with b. good is an opportunity that will reinvest in the farmland for future use, and provide Camp Harbor View’s campers with fresh food and lessons on urban agriculture, healthy eating, and community collaboration.

But those kids better like kale, beets and cabbage, because company officials have declared that they will focus on growing the produce used by their restaurants over those aligned with community needs and preferences.

“I thought we were doing a good thing, because the land had been fallow for several seasons,” Connors said. “This was an opportunity to help feed poor families.” Elissa Nabozny, a former volunteer, called the state of affairs on the farm “heartbreaking.”—Ruth McCambridge