The Mayor of Food

Long before the food movement took shape, Thomas Menino believed in—and acted on—its ideals: fresh food available to everyone of every income level, and as a route to better health.

Mayor Thomas Menino loved food almost as much as he loved Bostonians. He loved eating it, talking about it, and arguing about it. We had a running battle about the best pastry in the North End; as an Italian, even with parents born in the U.S., he always pulled rank, preferring Modern Pastry to my favorite, Maria’s. Chefs at campaign events would invite him back to their kitchens after he had talked with pretty much everyone who showed up—a 2008 Boston Globe poll famously reported that more than half the city's then-609,000 residents had met the mayor—to sneak him something special they had made. Lydia Shire, a pioneering Boston chef, named a pizza for him at her restaurant Scampo, a modification of one she'd thrown together the night of one of his countless (okay, five) inaugurals, with pickled jalapeno and chopped broccoli rabe. "I know the mayor likes his robbie," she said one night soon after the restaurant opened, hand-serving him one from the pizza oven.

But aside from the coddling and special treatment any mayor who shows up gets, Menino cared about food for exactly the reasons today's food-movement activists do, and long before it was fashionable to embrace what food can and should mean: access to fresh produce for everyone of every income level; gardens as ways to unite and repair communities; and, most importantly, fresh food as a route to better health. The mayor told everyone, including his biographer, longtime Atlantic senior editor Jack Beatty, that he wanted to be remembered as "the public-health mayor." That made him work particularly closely with my spouse, John Auerbach, who served 10 years as Boston's health commissioner.

Menino was a city councilor when he helped Gus Schumacher, then the Massachusetts commissioner of food and agriculture, launch a program to help WIC recipients double the value of their food coupons if they spent them on fresh produce. Launched at the Roslindale farmer's market one Saturday in August 1986, the program, which became known as Bounty Bucks, gained traction not only across the state but eventually at the federal level. As the Double Value Coupon Program, it is active at 350 farmer’s markets nationwide in 21 states and Washington, D.C., and helped give rise to the “fruit and vegetable prescription program,” which pays doctors and nutritionists to help tailor healthier diets for overweight and obese patients and redeem “prescription” coupons for fresh produce at participating supermarkets and farmer’s markets. The mayor helped launch that, too, with Boston hospitals.

Before the term “food deserts” entered the lexicon, Menino was one of the country’s first mayors to work hard to attract supermarkets to low-income neighborhoods. In a talk at Tufts University on Food Day in 2011, he said he was proud to have opened 25 new supermarkets in Boston, particularly in areas full-service supermarkets hesitated to go. They didn’t always succeed. Three years ago Menino fought to keep Walmart out of Roxbury, by then a certified food desert, even though a locally owned supermarket he had worked hard to attract had pulled out for lack of business. He saw Walmart as a threat to local ownership and the ambitious redevelopment plans he had put into place, which are now coming to fruition. (And Walmart still isn’t in Boston.)

He did, however, favor the replacement of a failed Latino supermarket in Jamaica Plain by Whole Foods, despite the strong opposition of activist groups that claimed to represent poor and ethnic residents and that viewed its arrival as the last nail in the coffin of gentrification. Gentrification was well under way and had been for years--and the longtime urban pioneers who had moved to JP decades before in fact welcomed its arrival, as I told Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb in a conversation on Thursday at the Washington Ideas Forum just when the news broke of the mayor’s death. Menino used various city funds to shore up the Latino bodegas that remained in the neighborhood, which still has a strong Latino presence. Whole Foods didn’t create a local housing fund to offset rising rents its presence would cause, as activists had wanted; but it did keep its promise to stock a lot of Latino fruits and vegetables in the produce department of its relatively small—and constantly crowded—store.

The mayor’s support for local food went far beyond episodic and politically expedient gestures. He championed the creation of a 2.5-acre organic garden with its own CSA on the grounds of the city’s largest homeless shelter; actively supported fundraising for Boston’s first year-round indoor food market, which is finally breaking ground; cleared the way for parking spaces for 40 food trucks when the idea was first taking off, because he was tickled by food trucks and liked the food they sold; and, significantly, created a full-time position four years ago for a director of his Office of Food Initiatives, whose director, Edith Murnane, had worked on similar food-access and justice issues at Community Servings, a Jamaica Plain group (of which I’m a board member) that serves nearly 10,000  home-delivered meals a week to critically ill people in 18 communities. Menino’s successor, Marty Walsh, has kept the Office of Food Initiatives in place. That will be another part of the Menino legacy.

Most of all, though, he liked the people who made food. The chefs he valued most were the ones who took an active interest in helping the community. Gordon Hamersley, for instance, whose Hamersley’s Bistro just closed to everyone in Boston’s dismay, including mine, became a favorite because of the work he did at an high school to give apprentice chefs real-world experience. “There wasn’t one person who wasn’t touched by the work that he did,” Hamersley told me this morning, “especially anyone who wanted to open a neighborhood restaurant. Plus he showed up at nine-tenths of the events we did.” Hamersley meant charitable events, and he did a lot of them. “He’s a good kid,” Menino would say of Hamersley—his highest form of praise, even though Hamersley’s Bistro had been in business for 27 years when it closed.

When he left office in January, Menino went to Boston University to direct a new Initiative on Cities. Typically, he found cheap, local, good ethnic places nearby to have lunch, and around Labor Day invited me to help compile a list. We went to Esperia Grill, a small Greek neighborhood restaurant that decided in 2006 to make everything from scratch and make the menu far closer to the food of the owners’ childhoods in Greece. Happily, Boston University filmed it, and the video it posted might be one of the last where he's in jovial form.

Typically, everyone knew him; typically, he had his fork in my plate for every plate of spinach pie, hummus, and veggie gyro that arrived; typically, he advised students to eat simply, look for fresh and local food made by people who cared about their neighborhoods; typically, he kidded around (“Hey, gimme my fork back!”). Atypically, he was extremely careful about what he ate—habits he’d adopted in the past few years, as his health compelled him to.

Our last official review meal was at a restaurant that set a new bar for luxury prices in Boston, such that my spouse and I had to share salads to stick within my expense budget. At the end of the meal I asked for the check, and the server said, "Oh, it's been taken care of," pointing across the room. I said that as a reviewer I couldn't accept any gifts and had to pay for our meals. "The gentleman has already taken care of the whole table," she said. I turned to the mayor and asked if he could accept it. "I'm not a public official," he said with his usual twinkle (he really had one).

I brought our benefactor to the table, a man with his two teenage sons, and he said that he had a large Italian meat-import business and had once given cold cuts to a campaign event for the mayor and wanted to express his gratitude for the mayor's service, including a giant salami. The mayor asked his sons with real interest how they liked school and what they wanted to do, as he always did, and talked to the man about his cold-cuts business.

When the family left, pleased, the mayor turned to the table and paused significantly. "I remember the salami," he said.