From Supermarket Rooftops to a Storied Ball Park, an Urban Farming Co. Increases Access to Local Food
September 12, 2017 | Charli Engelhorn
Since its inception in 2008, Green City Growers (GCG), a Certified B Corporation that installs and maintains vegetable gardens and farms within the greater Boston area, has assisted in the production of more than 175,000 pounds of organic produce, donated more than 12,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, and engaged more than 7,500 people through their efforts.
“The mission is to grow food in unused spaces and provide people access to fresh produce,” says Jessie Banhazl, CEO and co-founder of GCG. “Having that mission as the core of our trajectory has led us into so many different spaces, which has been really fun and interesting and made us realize that there are so many possibilities for this kind of work.”
The potential for possibilities was an unexpected surprise for Banhazl, who had previously worked in reality television production. After moving back to Boston from New York City, she was approached by a college friend who had been inspired by organizations and businesses on the West Coast that provided vegetable garden installations and maintenance to local residents.
“There weren’t many companies doing anything like this in Boston, so we had the idea to take that business model and run with it,” says Banhazl. “When we launched the business, we wanted to help people be more self-sustaining and learn how to grow food at home, and we had a lot of interest from people wanting to do that. What we didn’t expect was so much interest from the commercial market.”
Within the first couple of months, GCG was contacted by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care to discuss running employee wellness programs at two of their sites in Boston, which helped Banhazl and company begin to understand the value and application of vegetable gardening as part of the workplace and commercial settings.
Before year one was over, the company was approached by another large organization, b.good restaurants, a healthy fast food chain, to build a rooftop farm atop one of their stores. Since that time, GCG has installed 12 growing systems, both indoor and outdoor, for the chain and helps manage a one acre farm, Hannah Farm, located on one of Boston Harbor’s islands.
GCG’s portfolio also includes a mix of residential clients, commercial properties including high-rise apartment complexes and other corporate wellness sites, and senior living facilities.
“Some of our larger contracts have come through the process of a traditional sales track, where we identify properties coming into Boston or elsewhere and connect with the right people,” says Claire Davies-Frishman, director of marketing. “I think our product is really strong and speaks for itself, so a lot of the growth in the business has been because of the nature of the product itself.”
The nature of the product is what landed GCG two of its largest clients, Whole Foods and Fenway Park. According to Davies-Frishman, the smaller farms GCG was operating helped grab the attention of Whole Foods, who commissioned the company to build a 17,000-sqaure-foot rooftop garden on their store in Lynnfield, Massachusetts.
“We were able to prove that our product was viable, works, and could be a cost benefit for Whole Foods through smaller clients, so they trusted us,” says Davies-Frishman.
GCG not only helped to install the rooftop farm for Whole Foods, but also maintains the farm. This relationship is similar to how GCG works with Fenway Farms, a 5,000-square-foot rooftop farm within Fenway Park, the storied baseball stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Fenway Farms began operations on opening day in 2015.
“We work with the food service team to plan what to grow, and they use everything from the garden in the EMC Club and concessions,” Davies-Frishman says. “The farmers are there twice a week, and during the tours that come through daily, people can walk onto the deck overlooking the farm, and they gasp. This is not something you’d expect to see at a ballpark.”
Nine full-time year-round employees and another 16 full- and part-time employees make this work possible both during the growing season, which lasts from March to late November, and in the winter months, where the staff works on plans for next season’s farms and conducts workshops and community outreach.
Part of this community outreach includes educational programs. The company refers to their farmers as farmer educators because of the work they do as part of wellness programs and through private and public schools in the Boston Public School system.
“What we’re doing is very mission oriented,” says Davies-Frishman, “but the core of what we’re doing is bringing the joy of farming and growing your own food to places you wouldn’t expect, so it’s really nice to be recognized with these two awards.”