Worcester Thrives—Restructuring a post-industrial city by aligning economic development with food innovation to provide healthy food for all
Aligning infrastructure, policy and economics to stimulate food organizations, entrepreneurs, and farmers to supply healthy food for all
Worcester's food system is diverse and signifies the different cultures who have all contributed to life in the city.
Murals throughout the city pay homage to Worcester's beginnings, it's curious nature, and the people's hope for the future
Different cultures are welcomed into every aspect of Worcester from farmers' markets to civic life.
The City of Worcester is approximately 40 miles west of Boston, 50 miles east of Springfield, 40 miles north of Providence, and about 40 miles to the New Hampshire border making it the heart of Massachusetts.
The city is home to many inventors. Yes, even the smiley face was invented here by Harvey Ross Ball in the 1950's :)
The City is in flux. While major cultural and government buildings are rebuilt for modern functionality, their former structures are being re-purposed. The Worcester Auditorium is set to become a hub for interactive exhibits showcasing the City's technical expertise.
A common sight throughout Worcester - construction on nearly every block.
A diverse community featuring Lebanese, African, Italian, Vietnamese, Puerto Rican, and Albanian owned businesses - just to name a few!
Worcester is wildly creative dotted with hints of its industrial past
Downtown Worcester's oldest meat shop is still in operation in the shadow of the recently revitalized Union Station - a train hub connecting Worcester to the rest of New England and beyond. Below is a mural of President George Washington, designed by the dean of the Worcester Art Museum to celebrate the City's bicentennial in 1976.
Union Station is easily Worcester's most recognized building and will play an essential role in a dynamic food system for the City 2020 - 2050.
Among Worcester's hills covered in three decker houses, agricultural practices are being taught to Worcester teens. An initiative that is both nurturing to the land and the future leaders of the community.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Tufts University (Trustees of Tufts College)
Lead Applicant Organization Type
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
City of Worcester, MA - www.worcesterma.gov;
City of Worcester Public Schools - https://worcesterschools.org;
Worcester Department of Public Health - http://www.worcesterma.gov/public-health;
Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce - https://www.worcesterchamber.org;
The Worcester Regional Food Hub - https://www.worcesterfoodhub.org;
Regional Environmental Council - https://www.recworcester.org;
Central Mass Grown - https://www.centralmassgrown.org;
Healthy Greater Worcester - https://www.healthygreaterworcester.org;
MakeronMain - https://www.makertomain.com;
Worcester Common Ground, Inc - wcgcdc.org;
Worcester Food Policy Council - https://worcesterfoodpolicycouncil.org;
Steve Koltai - https://www.koltai.co
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Medford and Boston Massachusetts
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
United States of America
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Many of us have beginnings in Worcester. Our life and experience here provide inspiration and confidence that we in this community are capable of unprecedented change, without compromising our grounding in our roots.
A walk down Green street into Kelley Sq. or up Vernon Hill will show why Worcester is ready for change. Housing begs updating in nearly every neighborhood, darkened storefronts persist on Main Street, and once booming beacons of industrialization stand silent. For years this has been the image of New England’s second largest city; a far cry from Boston, just a place you drive by on the way to New York.
The people of Worcester, their ingenuity, creativity and connection to traditional food and culture, are key to developing a reimagined food system that makes healthy food accessible to all regardless of zip code, first language, or profession. While tradition is important, Worcester is not afraid of change. Invention, immigration, hard work and innovation are central to our heritage; the advent of social entrepreneurship, systems-thinking, and technological expertise will usher in the next generation of City leadership.
A typical day in Worcester? On a hilltop off Main South, high school students work on an urban farm; on Belmont Hill medical researchers craft new studies to investigate health disparities of City residents; in the heart of downtown political leadership strategize sustainable economic growth; at Elm Park Elementary, Worcester Tech High, Doherty, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), among the eight other higher education institutions who call Worcester home, educators prepare tomorrow’s adults for sustainable careers; and all across the city builders collaborate to solve an increased demand for housing. Every one of us is taking inspiration from our situation and actively participating in a new chapter for central Massachusetts. We all have an essential role to play in the vision and realization of Worcester’s Food System 2020 – 2050
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Sights from a stop at one of Worcester's food pantries and the washing station at the YOUTHGrow Farm.
Creativity acting as the mother of invention at the farm.
Where this farm sits today used to hold three triple decker homes. In the 80's a fire consumed the houses and the remaining debris covered the lot for years, it even became a dumping site for appliances and other unwanted items. After a revitalization project and foresight from the Regional Environmental Council, the land was nurtured back to health and now serves as an essential experiential education resource for Worcester's youth.
Worcester's Food Hub is extremely busy with coaching new food entrepreneurs, managing a central kitchen, and connecting farmers to market opportunities, but they are quickly out-growing their space.
A view inside the Food Hub's temporary central kitchen
A new food entrepreneur becomes the newest member of Worcester's Food Hub
Across the City, farmers' markets are popping up in places to connect the most food insecure individuals with healthy, fresh, local food. This image is from a community health center in one of Worcester's central neighborhoods.
The farmers' markets are true melting pots - for both vendors and customers!
More sights of urban agriculture taking root in Worcester. Growth is possible even in January temperatures!
The YOUTHGrow farm manager shows visitors crops that are able to be grown year-round thanks to long houses built with grant funding.
Across the City new construction and renovation alongside aging structures has Worcester residents constantly wondering what's next.
Worcester is defined by perseverance and innovation, and considered the industrial heart of the Northeast. In the early 20th century, European immigrants working in railroad, steel and textile industries built Worcester into a manufacturing metropolis. Since the Great Depression, the city has been rebuilding despite widespread poverty and globalization. Today, we in Worcester embody hope, and are among the most culturally vibrant melting pots in the United States. We originate from around the globe. In 2016, households from Ghana represented 10 percent of the non-native born population in Worcester. The Dominican Republic (9%), Vietnam (9%), Albania (6%) and Brazil (5%) are also significantly represented. This ethnic diversity shines through in the abundant selection of family owned grocery stores and restaurants in the city, and strengthens our vibrancy.
As we look to 2050, we are intent on ensuring food sovereignty amid rapid development. Leaders in our community are striving to create a political structure that builds upon economic and social progress by reimagining gentrification through policies that support dignity, prosperity and sustainability for buyers and sellers. For example, YouthGROW is an urban youth development initiative created in 2003 that shapes the lives of adolescents from low-income families by cultivating in them the skills to become generational changemakers in our food system. Maintaining living wages and developing collective infrastructures for local farmers is a vision that we all share, and one which we hope will mitigate rising rates of food insecurity.
Our bustling commerce sector is formed through a collaborative effort by many entrepreneurs, local and foreign-born business owners who own over 37 percent of local businesses. When new populations emigrate here they bring their food heritage and culture, sharing with everyone who buy goods daily at the many grocery stores and restaurants. Our food is delicious, and there are many healthy foods on which to build a foundation of change. Data shows that, of the international food stores in Worcester, most clientele do not share the same ethnic background as the store’s owner.
Worcester is located 40 miles west of Boston and is the only major industrial city in the United States that does not sit on a revenue generating lake, river, or seacoast. Its temperate climate is defined by variability; within the same season, daily fluctuations in temperature and precipitation occur, which is worsened by climate change and presents ongoing challenges to area farmers. In between its rolling hills sits a growing city center, separated by the Blackstone Valley Canal. The growing season for is 140 to 160 days of the year here.
We share a deep pride in our community that makes this place a synergistic, multicultural community where we seek to preserve old world traditions, while leaning into our entrepreneurial spirit to realize a new food movement.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
As our population rapidly grows, we are left with the challenge of ensuring that we are caring for our most vulnerable. Worcester had the highest growth in population and in households with new families of anywhere in Massachusetts. Many of our leaders – those who will lead us to realize our vision in 2050 -- are growing up here. However, while many investments in public infrastructure and efforts to revitalize the local economy are ongoing, not all lives in Worcester are improving. A minor league baseball team, which launched construction of a new stadium and entertainment complex, will relocate to Worcester and begin play in 2021. The stadium is adjacent to Union Station, with a revitalized commuter rail route, now running express trains to Boston in under an hour. This transit artery significantly changes the dynamics of our residents, as it allows for commuters that work in Boston to relocate their families to a less expensive area and displaces some lower income that already live here. This change is exacerbating the economic division between new city residents and those who have lived here traditionally, who are now forced to make do with fewer resources.
While this rebranding and repurposing of its industrial roots may improve the economy for a selection of Worcester’s people, the transition has left in its wake disjointed, unfinished development projects that are often left unfinished and create hazards for those living in the surrounding area.
Diet-related chronic disease disproportionately effects our population here. In 2015, the adult obesity rate was 26%, and 22% of adults were sedentary. Compared to the rest of Massachusetts, our residents have a lower life expectancy and a much higher incidence of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. One challenge that drives this health inequity is disparate and low access to fresh, culturally-appropriate foods. There is a real challenge facing public health and organization leaders who seek to improve the nutritional health of Worcester in the face of many cultures, practices and preferences, acknowledging that any sustainable behavior change intervention in this melting pot city must preserve traditional diets.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Worcester is at an incredible moment in time.
For years the city has operated in the shadows of Boston, left to its own ingenuity and determination for economic development and survival. As a historically diverse city, there has always been an open-door policy for new immigrants who, in succession, have acted as the backbone of urban support services--later growing into the community’s graduates, health practitioners, inventors, entrepreneurs, investors, and decision makers.
In weathering 21st century storms of industrial decline and polarizing national discourse, Worcester has persistently welcomed new neighbors of diverse backgrounds and harbored technological innovation.
Fearless change with determination and hard work will be Worcester’s strengths. Ensuring healthy food for all through this journey will require engagement, social and financial investment in three key areas.
Structural Economic Disparities
Staggering urban development projects are underway, changing the outlook for many residents. While these events are transformative for certain neighborhoods, they are not inclusive of all.
Various cultural, economic, and professional segments of the population have yet to be included in or worse stand to be displaced by certain development initiatives. Crafting and implementing a systems-wide approach will create a more economically viable Worcester for all and improve city-wide access and participation in an evolving food system.
Culturally Sensitive Innovation
Home to modern rocket engineering, Worcester is no stranger to pioneering science and technology and that heritage continues to thrive today. However, these additions come with the threats of gentrification and displacement of local food entrepreneurship.
With deep roots in Ghanaian, Nepalese, Albanian, Chinese, Brazilian, Lebanese (and many more) cultures, Worcester is a true melting pot of food traditions and agricultural practices. These ties are clearly seen on a drive through Worcester’s vibrant and bustling “Main South” where storefronts vary in language from building to building and block to block. Interestingly, the downtown neighborhood surrounding Worcester’s City Hall lays dormant with empty aging storefronts awaiting new proprietors.
Imagine a Worcester of the future where investment, new apartments, transportation enhancement and business development are equitable between downtown and Main South. And a system that cohesively connects local food from farm to downtown and to bordering neighborhoods and institutions.
Food and Healthy Communities
Lastly, there is the challenge of supporting traditional diets and ensuring healthy food purveyors are culturally appropriate, socio-economically relevant, viable, and approachable. This attention needs to be city-wide demanding the attention of all elements of infrastructure from civil society and financing to train depots and food hubs.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Imagine a city that takes healthy food production and distribution into account during every economic development decision that is made. Imagine that every resident’s life is valued equally, regardless of background, income, age or education level. That the culture values the availability of fresh, local, healthy produce grown within 100 miles by residents who take pride in their food-related livelihoods. Imagine that every institution feeding the residents - childcare centers, schools, prisons and jails, hospitals, nursing homes, worksites, firehouses, homeless shelters, and colleges to name a few – is committed to structuring it’s polices and budgets to prioritize healthy, fresh, local ingredients and sustainable meals. Now imagine the improvement in health care costs, infant mortality, chronic disease rates, and the under-employment in this City. And what could this City do with all the enormous savings – reinvest for even more change. This is Worcester Massachusetts. A City on the Move with leadership that recognizes it’s potential – land, water, diverse families, and resilient communities with grit and innovation at the core. A city ready to apply the latest science in systems modeling, agriculture, entrepreneurship, nutrition, technology and engineering to make it the best place to live in America and to serve as a model for other post-industrial cities from coast to coast. This vision was developed by a participatory systems modeling process that engaged over a dozen leaders from multiple sectors and settings that took into consideration the systems, infrastructure, economic drivers, and culture of the City now and in the future. We envision a transformation of the food system where one person benefits, everyone benefits.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Worcester is taking a systems-focused approach to realize its vision: Worcester Thrives—Restructuring a post-industrial city by aligning economic development with food innovation to provide equitable access to healthy food for all.
To kick off the process a group of leaders who represent multiple sectors of the city’s infrastructure convened to envision the future of the Worcester food system over the next several decades. It was a community-rooted process that built upon years of planning and change. We discussed the myriad of influences and impacts on the food system. City Hall was teeming with ideas - how urban farming enhances youth development, how local food production generates revenue and feeds back into the community, how loan policies for farmers increase economic development and the local food supply. In short, we articulated an exciting vision for Worcester over the next 30 years. An initial causal loop diagram with balancing and reinforcing loops was developed to illustrate the interconnectedness of organizations, decisions, and food systems variables within Worcester.
Above all Worcester strives for a collective infrastructure (soft, hard, social) ensuring that the emerging innovation is collectively accessed by the entire Worcester community. Decisions and investments in one area connect directly to decision making and investment in other areas.
Although the food system in Massachusetts is already strong, there are many opportunities to do better as many farmers and food businesses face barriers to expansion and viability. Within the state, existing food system goals around production, jobs, resource protection and food insecurity will provide support for and reinforce the work in Worcester.
At the heart of the Worcester food systems vision is economic development that is community-rooted and careful to manage gentrification. A robust and consistent government allocation of funds to the food system will lay the foundation for our equitable growth. More funds require political and public will. Community advocacy and broad message diffusion through print and social media, TV and radio will be activated to catalyze the allocation of funds and fuel the public will.
One of the key elements of the vision is increased funding and visibility for water and land conservation, land available for and allocated to public and urban farms, agriculture, and increased local food production and distribution. As this agricultural priority is rolled out, farmer expenses (income and offsets) will need to be balanced, sustainable sources of energy identified and supported, and incentive and loan programs made available. Central Mass Grown will help lead the way ensuring that the symbiotic relationship between farmers and their surrounding communities is expanded. Youth urban agriculture opportunities through the Regional Environmental Council that have been incredibly successful, yet resource constrained, will be expanded to reach and engage diverse youth throughout the City.
Food-related start-ups, technology firms, and established businesses, restaurants, food trucks, and food entrepreneurs, will be supported by an ever-growing Worcester Regional Food Hub, Central Mass Locavore, and Maker to Main and the opening of the new Worcester Public Market. The vision will boost, support and facilitate an increased number of minority owned food-related businesses, helping the economy prosper.
Affordable nutrition and easier access to Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) are key components of the vision, ultimately serving and empowering those who are under-resourced and under-represented. Applying entrepreneurship and innovation to providing affordable healthy prepared food, despite the limitations of SNAP, is a feature of the City’s vision. The City’s school district already provides the National school lunch and breakfast programs (NSLP and SBP) for the children of Worcester, but the vison will continue to ensure that policies sustain access and impact quality, including a larger share of locally sourced foods throughout the academic year. The vision prioritizes institutional commitment (government agencies and organizations, hospitals, Head Start, etc.) to source local foods. These efforts to equitably improve dietary intake and nutritional status will inevitably lead to a reduction in health disparities.
The underpinning of the vision will rely on the population’s knowledge of local and healthy food to impact purchases and consumption. Throughout the City, we will inspire a movement to educate, engage, and empower the residents through every individual and group interaction at childcare, schools, colleges, food pantries, the Worcester County Food Bank, food hubs, buy local organizations, health care organizations, immigrant service provider organizations, and other social service organizations.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?
Dean of of the School of Nutrition at Tufts University