A spotlight on Mei Mei supplier Urban Farming Institute (UFI) by Jennifer Chen, a Mei Mei intern who has spent time both volunteering at UFI and working at Mei Mei.
From a young age, I loved to garden and connect to the earth through food.
My family had a small vegetable garden next to our house where we grew sunflowers, Chinese spinach, chives, and a bunch of other yummy things that we could easily cut and throw into our cooking pots. There is something special about watching something grow from the start over weeks and months, and there is something magical about harvesting what comes out the other end. That’s why I reached out to Urban Farming Institute (UFI) and Mei Mei to learn more about their businesses. For the past two years, I have volunteered at UFI with Bobby Walker, UFI’s Farm Training Manager, and more recently I interned with Mei Mei.
Mei Mei prioritizes creating dishes with local and yummy ingredients. But that’s not just it - they also make sure they know the people behind the produce, and create close connections with farmers that make the food at Mei Mei even more meaningful. The Urban Farming Institute of Boston, also known as UFI, is one place Mei Mei proudly sources from. The famed ‘Magical Kale Salad’ (gives salads a good rep) is made of kale often sourced and grown right next door in farms in Roxbury by UFI farmers.
"Mei Mei is not a normal restaurant"
In my whopping three weeks interning this past summer at Mei Mei, I got a look at the restaurant industry — where fruits and vegetables go to become delicious dishes. Mei Mei is not a normal restaurant: it’s a family owned, local business that works tooth and nail to be better, to improve the current industry by creating connections between farmer and chefs so that the food that’s served is not only yummy, but ethical — in every sense.
As an outsider who has now seen glimpses from both ends — farm to restaurant table, I see how disconnected we can be to our foods in our day-to-day lives. But after three weeks at Mei Mei, I’ve seen a celebration of the magic of local and organic foods opposed to foods grown through conventional agricultural methods.
UFI was born in 2012 when the interests for a better food system and communal experiences in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan were combined. UFI tackles the biggest problems of social, food, and environmental justice: food availability.
So they did something about it.
In these 6 short years, UFI has brought its global vision of a just food system to reality, creating relationships between residents in Boston neighborhoods and farmers for healthier urban spaces and healthier people.
UFI isn’t just a network of farms. Everything they do is in accordance with what the residents of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan want. At one of my visits to UFI sites, I learned about the history of their headquarters, which sits on the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm circa 1786. The land was originally a farm that spanned many acres. Over the years, when passed from one family to the next, the farmland shrunk. When the farmland passed over into the hands of the city, original plans were to build a few more condos. But the residents surrounding the space protested. Pat Spence, the executive director of UFI, who lives nearby, caught wind.
UFI is made up of real people. More importantly, UFI is made up of the people who will be affected by decisions about land access and food. Because UFI has the residents’ best interests in mind, it is conscious of what problems need to be addressed. Since its start in 2014, UFI has developed the first urban farm under Boston’s new zoning amendment, and founded (and co-sponsored) 3 statewide urban farming conferences that have attracted 400 participants each year from Boston as well as across state lines. UFI has increased access to food and knowledge about food to incredible lengths, and the fruits of their labor are clear and true.
Because UFI is conscious of what is needed in their communities, they have such a large array of opportunities. They provide farmer training to residents who live in Massachusetts urban areas. Bobby Walker, the Farmer Training Manager, works primarily with rookie and upcoming farmers. UFI provides this service to people not only to promote urban farming as a commercial sector that creates green collar jobs, but also to engage communities to work toward healthier and more locally based food systems. UFI provides the real skills needed to become successful small plot urban farmers to the residents of Boston neighborhoods. UFI has so far graduated 5 cohorts of urban farmers and will continue do so in the years to come. Among the graduates of UFI’s training program, 80% work in farm and food related business in the Boston region.
One of the other things UFI does is reclaim land and transform it to land appropriate for growing food. Even as small as ¼ an acre of land can provide a steady stream of produce for residents in the local city. This system helps to reduces Mei Mei’s overall carbon footprint because of how local the food is. Mei Mei is only 15 minutes away from UFI’s headquarters and sprawl of farms. UFI has become a leader of creating a new model for food systems in urban areas, and the team at Mei Mei share this vision of a supporting a better food system. Along with other restaurants like Mei Mei, UFI also sells its produce at farm stands. You can find UFI produce every week on Thursdays from 1-5pm at the Bowdoin Geneva Farm Stand and Fridays from 3-7pm at the Mattapan Farm Stand at UFI Headquarters. You can also learn more about UFI at www.urbanfarminginstitute.org
When I think about the three weeks I spent at Mei Mei and 2 years I’ve known UFI, I first think about the challenges of owning a sustainable and ethical restaurant or a farm in a city. But I’ve also seen that farmers and restaurant owners like UFI and Mei Mei can work hard together to make their common vision, a greener and more responsible food system, become a reality.
About the Author:
is a Mei Mei blog contributor and a 2018 summer intern. She spent her time mostly at Mei Mei contributing to its Open Book Curriculum and writing for its online blog. Jenn is a senior at Milton Academy interested in environmental science and making the Earth more livable, and was super honored to have seen a working, more sustainable business model. If asked, she would say her favorite foods at Mei Mei are the dumplings, especially the vegan-friendly Three Sisters!