How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Dr. Margaret Connors fused:
- farm & city
- production & consumption
- races & social classes
- agriculture, industry, & home
"Food lies at the intersection of many of our most pressing problems: the obesity epidemic, soaring healthcare costs, a faltering economy, and climate change."*
"I was working as a Wellness Coordinator in the Young Achievers Math and Science Elementary School — part of the Boston Public School System. A little more than half the schools in the city of Boston do not have their own kitchens. So, meals are sent from faraway places to the school frozen, and then thawed in warming ovens and served to the children for breakfast and lunch. One of our warming ovens had broken. So, for 3 weeks running, the kids were getting cheese sandwiches for breakfast and lunch. As it was, the students weren't eating the food because it tasted so horrible. The pizza tasted like cardboard. There were virtually no fruits and vegetables. They were being served nothing but cheese sandwiches. Nobody was eating the stuff. They were getting headaches from hunger and performing poorly in school. When you don't eat, you don't learn. They weren't going to be 'young achievers' for very long."
During the industrial revolution, people flocked to cities for new factory jobs. Cities grew, and with transportation technologies and infrastructure, they also sprawled. Urbanites were separated from farmers, and within cities people no longer lived where they worked. Canning and other preservation technologies improved, and fresh food became ever-more rare. Most of what people ate was packaged and transported, and people's lives separated into worklife and homelife.
Urbanization continues today. According to KPMG (Future State 2030), 60% of people around the world will live in cities by 2030. Inequality also continues — and grows — especially with high rates of joblessness in many inner-cities. According to a Sierra Club report on the "true cost of food," 7% of our farms grow 72% of our food, and urban communities of colour often have little, if any, access to fresh food.
Dr. Margaret Connors was working with the Young Achievers cafeteria staff to document how much the students were eating, what they liked, what they threw away, and how well they performed in their studies.
Based on the results, the school staff decided to secede from the Federal School Lunch Program, take their USD 1.90 per meal, per child and "go local." The school brought in City Fresh Foods, a local fresh-food distributor of meals to schools, child-care centres, and home-care elders. Together, they introduced freshly-prepared meals and repeated the surveys and interviews 6 months later.
The difference was phenomenal. The children were cleaning their plates of rice and beans, chicken, and vegetable stew — dishes that were both fresh and familiar to them.
A year later, the school's test scores were among the highest in the city.
Expanding the menu to include fresh fruits and vegetables — while meeting the price point that schools can pay — is always a challenge for businesses like City Fresh Foods. Margaret was brainstorming about this dilemma with City Fresh CEO Glynn Lloyd one day, and said, "Wouldn't it be great if we could grow greens right around the corner from the school in all these vacant lots?" In fact, Margaret 's research found that 73% of all the vacant land was concentrated in just 3 of the City's 21 neighbourhoods. That was the beginning of City Growers.
In 2010, City Growers established their first urban farm, just managing to support the farmers at a living wage. Two years later, they established the commercial viability of operating multiple urban farms with central management.
In three of the most economically-challenged communities of Boston, City Growers has transformed vacant land into productive lots for growing food, with three main objectives: employment at a living wage; local access to affordable, nutrient-rich foods; and food security based on local sourcing. They demonstrated that small plots become economically viable when they're centrally managed and employ intensive growing practices.
Some lots were recently vacated with the economic downturn, but many had been vacant for over 30 years. Most were residential, and many would have soil quality issues (requiring new topsoil). Some were industrial, offering possible contamination. Those would require geotextile barriers (like plastic sheeting) and raised beds, to guard against phased-out use of leaded gas, leaded paint, pressure-treated wood, and other toxins.
Urban land preparation is thus considerably more expensive than rural, and small plots are more labour-intensive and complex.
Before any physical changes could take place on the lots (like enhancements for water and soil), zoning regulations had to be changed to support mixed use of land. This required massive paperwork to transform "industrial" and "residential" lots into "agriculturally productive" land.
Neighbours would have to be persuaded to accept new noises, smells, and appearances. Workers would have to be trained, and nascent markets needed development. Capital would have to be gathered, including foundation grants, state grants, and private investment. Loans would be negotiated creatively, since standard farm loans are based on land ownership and not on new distributed-network business models of small plots with a complex array of ownership and agreements.
Before launching a ground-breaking enterprise, they did their homework. Research showed that 50 acres of farming in Boston would create up to 220 agricultural jobs (plus more to serve the sector), reduce CO2 emissions by 4,700 tons, and generate over 680,000 kg (1.5 million pounds) of fresh produce for local consumption.* In fact, urban farming has a long and illustrious history:
"The Parisian maraîchers of 160 years ago pioneered intensive sustainable urban agriculture, producing year round all the vegetables consumed by Parisians on one-sixteenth of the land within the Paris city limits — with enough left over for export to England…. Urban agriculture — growing food in and around cities — is widely practiced around the world today; over 800 million people engage in urban food growing and processing as a means to generate income, and it plays a significant role in building food security, particularly for low income and poor city dwellers…. There are … 80,000 urban farmers in Berlin, and China's fourteen largest cities produce eighty-five percent of their vegetables. Sustainable urban agriculture is a key component in creating more liveable, carbon resilient, healthier, economically vibrant, and environmentally sustainable cities…."*
With annual revenues of USD 1.7–2.2 per square foot,* Boston's vacant 800 acres could produce USD 70 million annually. There are 30 cities in the US with at least 600,000 people, so US revenue could approach USD 2 Bn/yr. The US contains about 4.4% of the world's population, so global revenue could approximate USD 50 Bn/yr.
City Growers was among the first in the nation to conceptualize urban farming as a commercial industry — a community-based business with commercial viability. As social entrepreneurs, Glynn provided the business perspective, and Margaret provided research, policy, and advocacy. Not-for-profit farms prevail in their market, but City Growers' plan is to become a model for economic self-sufficiency.
Margaret and Glynn also created a separate not-for-profit, the Urban Farming Institute (UFI) for land acquisition and management, infrastructure development, and farmer training. As a not-for-profit, UFI has access to grants and donations that commercial growers (like City Growers) cannot obtain. In growing this way organizationally, they are also growing their programs for community education and outreach, as well as developing affordable farmer's markets in the neighbourhoods where they operate.
To make it all work, they had to integrate community, business, government, consumers, investors, and more. In fact, the Massachusetts Urban Agricultural Conference (founded by City Growers and co-hosted by UFI and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources), is an annual event where these efforts can ferment. The Conference brings together farmers of all types — small- and large-plot, rooftop, community gardeners, chicken growers, bee keepers, etc. — to engage with political activists, policy makers, commercial buyers, and investors.
Now, Margaret has launched a new enterprise — Life is Local — which digs deeper into City Growers' theoretical foundation. Life is Local envisions a future where both the local and global economies drive local purchasing. Its mission is to provide local knowledge, products, and services in one location under one banner — LIFE IS LOCAL™ — for promoting and growing locally-sustained economies.
What kind of person fuses farm and city, production and consumption, work and home, race, social class, and a multitude of stakeholders?
"She's a pioneer — open to the unknown. She's willing to mark and stay on course, and the course is not always clear. It takes a certain personality to put up with that. You have to be flexible all the way."
- Glynn Lloyd, City Growers Co-Founder
Flexible she is — and curious, cross-cultural, and cross-disciplinary. A native of Boston, Margaret went to Indonesia to study gamelan music. She was so intrigued by the indigenous medical system that when she returned to college, she decided to earn a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology — the study of culture through the lenses of medicine and medicine through the lenses of culture.
Planning to return to Indonesia to work for an NGO, Margaret was swept up by the fervour of the AIDS epidemic in the US. With the preponderance of infections coming from sexual activity and drug-needle sharing, she studied risk and risk-aversion practices in "crack houses," as interventions to curb the epidemic were introduced. She found herself in Worcester, Massachusetts (with the highest rate of Hepatitis C in the nation), Chicago, and among the Tohono O'dam of Arizona, researching socio/cultural factors attributed to infection rates.
Afterwards, she accepted a fellowship at Harvard Medical School to continue her work investigating HIV risk-taking among intravenous drug users. Illicit substance-abusers are not typically welcoming of people they perceive as wealthy socialites, such as scholars from Harvard. However, with her working-class background and deep empathy, people quickly warmed to her and shared their experiences and lives, agreeing to let her publish their stories with her insights.
She talks with people, draws them together, and gets them involved. She's keenly aware of power relations and structural injustices, as well as the intricacies of social and individual agency.
"I've been fusing things my whole career — trying to integrate so many different ideas and fields and people that — in my view — should be together."
Always open to new ideas and exploring new possibilities, once Margaret gets an idea, she pursues it speedily and confidently. She doesn't shy away from boundaries other people see, and her initiatives always benefit someone else. They create value to society and all the players involved.
"She was the first to have chickens, you know, right in Jamaica Plain — totally-urban Boston. She led her neighborhood in planting fruit trees on the block, too. She was already doing this stuff around gardening in a pioneering way. Farming was the next step."
- Glynn Lloyd, City Growers Co-Founder
Friends describe her as a driven, determined, passionate, experienced, open, creative risk-taker — a doer with integrity and a sense of reciprocity, friendship, and justice. Margaret produces a perennial harvest of new ideas, connects the dots, and is a trouble-maker (in the most positive way). She is never constrained by convention.
As an anthropologist, she knows how to observe, consider, and investigate. As a researcher, she knows how to gather resources for what no one (yet) knows how to do. She collects seeds of ideas from broad-based and voracious reading and gathers tools and help from the different communities she engages.
She has boundless energy and plans far more than is possible. She's mindful, present, and very, very aware — extremely "tuned-in" to the environment around her. As a naturalist, she recharges while hiking and camping and has a vast knowledge of flora and fauna.
Her perspective is both international and local — cross-cultural as well as deeply-rooted in family and Boston. She adroitly crosses sub-cultural boundaries with the depth of understanding only a native has.
Rootedness has also required her to be creative in a way that only place-based people understand. Changing circumstances (like economic recession) don't drive them to move away. They make changes to survive where they are. In fact, she shocked her friends by turning down a prestigious social-science tenure-track job elsewhere. Working and living in her community was more important than securing an academic salary, and she's done well in the decades since.
Margaret is highly aware of the people around her, reads them well, and understands their needs and capabilities based on deep local knowledge, empathy, and friendly engagement. That said, she also sees with the eyes of a traveller who's come home.
Having seen the needs of her children and neighbours, she crossed cultural boundaries and found information, people, and resources in the last place on earth most city residents would go — next door to Harvard, MIT, city government, investors, and the like.
City Growers didn't invent urban farming, but applying it in a new context required considerable integration of previously-separate stakeholders. Thankfully, Margaret is highly adept at cultivating, organizing, and connecting different communities.
Despite seeing neighbourhoods rife with poverty, crime, unemployment, and underemployment, her future-vision is one of integration, life, and growth — one where life is no longer fragmented. Perhaps the best way to craft such a future-vision is to stand on familiar ground — our own and others' — seeing together, through everyone's eyes.
In what are you rooted — place, family, or something else?
What boundaries might your rootedness enable you to cross — drawing people together in a way outsiders can't?
What will you grow?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Dr. Margaret Connors is Co-Founder and Principal of City Growers, LLC and Founder of Life is Local. Her PhD in Medical Anthropology is from University of Massachusetts (Amherst), and her groundbreaking socio-medical research is from Harvard Medical School. She is "from" Indonesia, Ireland, and the USA (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on her work, see : LinkedIn, City Growers (citygrowers.wordpress.com), and Urban Farming Institute.
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you're all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research — you're the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
*Ref: The Conservation Law Foundation and CLF Ventures, Inc., Growing Green: Measuring Benefits, Overcoming Barriers, and Nurturing Opportunities for Urban Agriculture in Boston (whitepaper, July 2012). Quotations from page 3.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Dr. Margaret Connors, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
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