For Apolo Cátala, community engagement is a way of life. As Farm Manager of Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation (NDC)’s OASIS on Ballou, he is committed to engaging people in healthy, affordable nutrition through urban agriculture.
“Our mission is to create food access in a multi-dimensional way by encouraging people to make a better connection with where their food comes from, and by inspiring them to grow their own,” Cátala says.
The OASIS (Opportunity, Affirmation, Sustainability, Inspiration, and Success), a half-acre farm in Dorchester along the tracks of the Fairmount Commuter Rail, wasn’t always a place for growth and community. Formerly the site of four houses, the property was abandoned in the 1970s and became a dumping ground for car parts and trash. In 2008, the City of Boston Department of Neighborhood Development designated the site for urban agriculture and the work to transform it from eyesore to oasis began.
Even after the debris was cleared away, the OASIS wasn’t ready for planting. The ground was contaminated with lead paint and heavy metals, and replacing the soil was too costly. Instead, the Codman Square NDC and the Friends of Ballou contained the soil by covering the lot in wood chips and geotech fabric. Under Cátala’s direction, workers and volunteers use raised beds, containers, and garden bags to grow hundreds of pounds of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The produce is then made available to the community.
“We choose not to sell at the pricier farmers’ markets,” Cátala says. “We go to Codman Square and Mattapan Square, where the population is more challenged economically. We are making organic food accessible by taking it to where people are, selling it at a lower price, and engaging the community in a healthier relationship with their food.”
OASIS on Ballou’s efforts to bring organic produce to healthy food priority areas are further bolstered by city and state initiatives like the Healthy Incentives Program, DotRx, and Healthy on the Block. Cátala hopes the assessments of these programs’ impact will help to measure the value of urban farming.
“For most urban farmers, the payoff isn’t financial,” he says.
Cátala began thinking about farming and food access during a visit to his birthplace, Puerto Rico. He was struck by the lack of agriculture.
“Despite having a lush, green landscape and lots of water and sunshine, 85% of the food in Puerto Rico is imported,” Cátala says. This contradiction inspired him to take an online EdX course, Food as Chemistry. After that, he enrolled in Urban Farming Institute’s training program, and then found his role at OASIS. In 2018, he joined Tufts CTSI’s Stakeholder Expert Panel.
“I see my role on the Panel as identifying areas of research, bringing people together, and hopefully getting involved with a nutritional food access study,” Cátala says. “Codman Square takes a 360° approach to the social determinants of health. We could be a valuable partner for researchers through Tufts CTSI.”