City food czar has a full plate

December 3, 2010
By

David Taber


Photo courtesy Caleb Taylor Williams
Food czar Edith Murnane.

Edith Murnane, the City of Boston’s recently appointed director of food policy—a positon informally known as city “food czar”— is cooking up multi-course plans for the future of Boston’s local food infrastructure.

In a recent phone interview with the Gazette, the long-time JP resident, and former member of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, said she is involved with city initiatives to: rezone vacant lots for urban agriculture uses; promoting farmers markets and community supported agriculture ventures to bring locally sourced foods to city residents; develop strategies to make sure healthy food is affordable; and educate city residents about nutrition.

Murnane—the former owner of Coffee Cantata at Centre and Pond streets—was on staff at the local non-profit Community Servings, which cooks meals for people who are homebound due to chronic health issues, prior to signing on with the city. “I was brought on board [at Community Servings] to work on sustainability and bringing more local food into the kitchen,” she said.

She sat on the city’s Food Council prior to landing the largely grant-funded city position, which has an operating budget of about $50,000 and is funded for at least two years. The job, she told the Gazette, is to be a point-person for a diverse array of programs and initiatives that make up the city’s increasingly complex and multi-faceted “food policy.”

Her efforts range from helping promote Mayor Thomas Menino’s holiday can drive to working on the development of an indoor fresh food market in Boston’s Haymarket district. This year, the food drive is accepting both donations of non-perishable food items and cash donations “for the Mayor’s Fresh Food Fund, which helps fund Boston Bounty Bucks” a subsidy that residents who receive federal food assistance can use at farmers markets throughout the city, she said.

The Boston Public Market project is an effort to redevelop the groundfloor of a state-owned parking garage in downtown Boston in to a 30,000 square-foot “year-round farmers market,” with stall spaces for small vendors as well as restaurants and coffee shops, Murnane said.

A request for proposals (RFP) for that project was released in October, she said, and the public market is tentatively scheduled to open in the summer of 2012.

The Haymarket area, easily accessible to JP residents via the Orange line, is already the site of a weekly outdoor market where surplus produce not purchased by local grocery stores is sold at discounted rates.

RFPs to commercially cultivate three quarter- to half-acre “sliver parcels” in Dorchester are due out later this month, in conjunction with zoning changes to allow commercial agriculture on the lots. That program is intended as a pilot “so that the city can have a conversation about [broader scale] urban farming,” Murnane said, “The hope is that we can have a longer conversation about urban agriculture and aquaculture.”

Murnane told the Gazette she has tapped into local talent for that conversation. Donald Wiest, a JP lawyer who specializes in zoning, and David Warner, co-owner of local grocer City Feed and Supply, both sit on a 15 person working group Murnane has formed to plot the future of commercial agriculture in the city. Wiest also chairs the Boston Public Market Association, a non-profit that is advocating for that project.

While those long-term projects are rolling, Murnane said, she is working on a number of more immediate efforts as well. She is helping coordinate an initiative offering a subsidized community supported agriculture (CSA) program for seniors in Boston Housing Authority (BHA) housing at sites throughout the city, she said. CSAs are programs where buyers purchase a “share” at the beginning a farm’s harvest season and receive a weekly supply of vegetables.

She is also working on a proposal to simplify and increase the transparency of Boston’s zoning and licensing process for food vendors; and working with Dorchester’s Codman Square Health Center to develop a study that will track health outcomes for low-income family’s with access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Overall, she said, she sees her role as part of an effort to ensure that Boston is fully integrated into a regional food network. “Regionally, the goal is to make New England as self-sustaining as possible,” she said, “I think of New England as an intricately connected web.”

One sector that is not as close to being integrated into that web as she would like, Murnane said, is the Boston Public Schools. Forty-eight of the city’s about 140 school’s have kitchens, but, “One [regional] farmer can’t deliver to all 48 schools. Currently, we can’t line it up,” she said.