How do we tackle climate change within our own communities?
By Niles Singer
In East Boston, Kannan Thiruvengadam’s small community farm provides a template for tackling climate change and food insecurity. By bringing community members together, Eastie Farm empowers its community, creating lasting networks of mutual support. And as a community-based organization, it can easily spot and create custom solutions for the East Boston community, maximizing its impact.
Thiruvengadam first began Eastie Farm in 2015 when he noticed an abandoned lot in East Boston. This lot, which originally had soil lead levels 10 times greater than what scientists deem healthy enough to grow edible food in, would become what is now a vibrant community farm whose efforts serve not only to provide a green space for the public, but also to boost community resilience through sustainability and food justice.
One of Eastie Farm’s main goals is to provide hands-on education to the public about climate change and corresponding sustainable practices to help mitigate its impacts. On Saturdays Thiruvengadam spends time teaching East Boston locals about composting, providing them with all the materials they need to compost their own food scraps.
Using repurposed soy sauce buckets from a local restaurant and sawdust from a local wood shop, both materials that would have otherwise been thrown out, Thiruvengadam demonstrates how to best combine food scraps and sawdust to eliminate odor and create ideal conditions for composting. Once they’ve learned, participants go home with their own free bucket and sawdust and can easily return in the following weeks with questions.
“Look, it’s not a dirty horrible gross thing,” said Thiruvengadam, “You can compost in a way that’s beautiful — doesn’t smell bad, doesn’t look bad. And people are like “‘Really? Is that even possible?’ It is possible.”
While his tools and work may seem basic at first glance, their effects are significant, especially considering Boston’s own city-wide green initiatives, which Thiruvengadam describes as having largely flopped. The advantageous smaller scale of Eastie Farm’s community allows Thiruvengadam and his team to tailor efforts to problems specific to East Boston and make tangible change. For example, Eastie Farm diverts excess rainwater that was previously damaging a neighboring house into storage tanks. It is then used to water their plants.
As a result of his success, Thiruvengadam is a strong believer in the effectiveness of community action in comparison with more top-down policies from the state and federal governments.
“Communities are so close to the problem they can solve their problems themselves. They don’t have to be receivers of solutions from the State House or from the White House,” he says.
However, Thiruvengadam does acknowledge that “they do need a little bit of assistance” from the government and that government subsidies can be transformational. He recently helped file two food justice legislation bills: Food Justice with Jobs and Establishing a Food Justice Frontline. The first of these bills advocates for transforming more land into food growing spaces, which in turn can employ community members. The latter seeks to better inform the public of existing state aid programs, which many qualified individuals do not currently know they could benefit from.
Continuing with his emphasis on food justice, Thiruvengadam realized that one of the biggest challenges East-Bostonians had at the height of the pandemic was keeping food on their tables. As a result, he spearheaded an effort to provide hot healthy meals for food insecure individuals in their community. By partnering with local Bon Me restaurant locations, Thiruvengadam’s team provided up to 5,000 of these meals per week. Primarily funded by the Boston Resiliency Fund, Eastie Farm was able to buy these meals at cost, helping restaurants stay in business and even paying community members a living wage to deliver these meals. They also partnered with Tawakal Halal Cafe to provide halal meals to the community, stressing that it was important for recipients of these meals to get food that is not only healthy and hot, but food that they would actually want to eat.
This program’s success is built upon existing connections between Eastie Farm and local chefs, restaurants, and individuals. In this case community-based mutual aid once again proved enormously beneficial to the community as government stimulus checks took months to arrive.
According to Thiruvengadam, the best way individuals can help their communities build climate change resiliency is to start right now where you live.
“What you start has to be small enough so you know how to take the first step, but it has to be large enough to challenge you. It has to be something that engages you, because in any kind of change-making work you’re going to face a lot of hindrances,” he said.
For Thiruvengadam and Eastie Farm, the key to building community resilience is creating networks of connection with neighbors. He believes that overarching government policies can create a backbone of support, but it’s within our own communities that we are able to tailor our efforts to tackling systemic issues, and therefore affect the most change.
Photos for this article courtesy of Eastie Farm.
Niles Singer is a 2021 intern at GBH in Boston, MA.
This article is inspired by a 2017 lecture about inclusive community building in East Boston, hosted by New England Aquarium and recorded by GBH Forum Network.