In sorting through our issues from the past year as we put our end-of-2017 features together, it’s pretty sad to see how much horrible news we cover. From evictions and homelessness, to corporate welfare, to harassment and abuse, it’s one hideous piece after another. While our untold stories of this city often reach a lot of eyeballs, you wouldn’t say we run a clickbait factory.
Still, we’re human after all, and it only feels right to extol some of the groups and individuals who work to make Boston a better place, instead of always simply pointing out the warts and leeches. I recently discovered one such worthy outfit up close in Fair Foods, a legendary Hub-based nonprofit that distributes groceries at more than 50 Greater Boston locations a week. Thanks to my colleagues from the New England chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, who organized reporters to interview Fair Foods volunteers and employees and profile them for the nonprofit’s website, I didn’t merely get to watch people in action but was able to speak with several at length to learn why they do what they do. I used some excerpts from those interviews, conducted by myself and other SPJ members, in my attempt below to share with readers what I found that makes this such a special operation.
A lot of folks I spoke with came across the group at random and have returned to help out regularly. Like Habibo, who was just walking by the First Church of Roxbury on a Saturday when she saw people sorting vegetables. She stopped to ask what they were doing, met Fair Foods distribution director Jason and a few others, and that day began lending a hand.
“If I have the time, I always volunteer,” Habibo said. She spends a lot of her days doing charity work. In addition to the four or so hours that she’s given to Fair Foods every week for the past two months, she also volunteers at rehabilitation centers. “People are friendly,” she said. “Just like people all over the world, same thing … I came here to help out.”
Ted, a volunteer who lives in Jamaica Plain, said he “just happened to bump into [Fair Foods] and needed something to take away the pain of my divorce.” He said he keeps coming back because in addition to helping feed families, he enjoys “meeting other people from every walk of life.” “It’s just sort of magical here,” Ted said.
Thanks to assistance from the likes of Ted and Habibo, Jason, the Fair Foods distribution manager, says the org has put more than $200 million worth of food into Boston kitchens over the past 30 years. Its secret sauce: People who receive groceries are asked to pay $2 a bag (formerly $1), which makes Fair Foods 60 to 70 percent self-sustainable.
“When someone comes to Fair Foods, they’re not stigmatized,” Jason said. “Just that [$2] allows people to have that empowerment. That’s the principle it was built on … It was built up over the years just through that grassroots energy.”
Elmonda “Grandma” Prescott is 83 years old and still comes out to help every weekend in Roxbury, often bringing lunch for the vols to eat after a long morning of work. “It’s just my way,” she says. “My father was a rock blaster. He used to dig out the holes and get the rocks to build the houses. My mother used to work on the plantation. She worked with potatoes and yams and things like that.”
“We have a lot of problems in our society where people try to make change from the top down, and it doesn’t work,” says Jason. “A lot of money gets wasted that way.”
You can find a map of all 50-plus Fair Foods locations as well as other resources on the Boston Public Health Commission website.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.