05/08/2013 08:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Massachusetts Avenue Project: Greening Buffalo's Food Deserts

Dark Rye

The Massachusetts Avenue Project from Dark Rye on Vimeo.

Sometimes it feels like locally sourced food is little more than a passing folly for well-heeled urbanites, and it's true that "eating local" does have a lot of hipster cultural cachet. But it can be about so much more than that. The process of growing your own food can transform lives.

Witness the work done by the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) on Buffalo, New York's decidedly non-trendy West Side. There, MAP operates the Growing Green urban farm on an acre of land previously occupied by 13 adjacent vacant lots. What was once an urban ruin now houses rows and rows of vegetable gardens, berry bushes, a free-range chicken run and compost pile, a 27,000-gallon aquaponics system, fruit trees, a mint field, a grove of catalpa trees and even a fish hatchery. This fully functional local food system is mostly tended by local volunteer high school students, who get to -- often for the first time in their lives -- experience the joy of knowing where their food comes from.

West Buffalo is a "food desert," a large urban swath that contains no actual grocery stores, where residents are forced to either shop at overpriced, junk-laden convenience stores, or spend their days schlepping on public transportation just to buy apples, onions and other kitchen staples. Three million people nationwide live in these kinds of neighborhoods. New Orleans' 9th Ward hasn't had a major grocery store since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The city of Camden, New Jersey, with more than 77,000 residents, has only one major grocery store. It's the most unhealthy relationship with the food system imaginable. But Growing Green is changing all that.

Their programs run deep. In April, MAP held a weekend-long community "urban agriculture training" that included workshops on how to raise, feed and harvest chickens; on how to raise worms in a compost bin; on the basic principles behind aquaponic fish farming; and about how to operate a profitable farm stand. In May, the kids are holding a farmstand sale on the weekends where they sell their seedlings, and Growing Green recently established a food truck to bring goods to other underserved Buffalo neighborhoods.

Growing Green also partners with Operation PUSH, which includes green affordable housing, community-based energy projects, and green jobs training programs. It's an innovative way to try to revive a neighborhood whose median household income hovers around $9,000 a year. Both organizations are part of a nationally recognized "Green Development Zone." But MAP's urban farm, along with a recently opened public park, represents the green heart of a revitalizing inner city.

The Massachusetts Avenue Project's Growing Green Program is transforming the ghosts of vacant lots into gardens that thrive, and wayward kids into dedicated urban farmers who are looking to change the face of food. It's a noble, much-needed and totally successful effort that continues to grow vegetables, not to mention a well-deserved nationwide reputation as a great innovator in urban farming. Long may it bloom.

This video from Dark Rye was produced by Kelly Le Castre and Hope Wilson and edited by Jason De La Rosa.