City to Tomato-Growing Couple: ‘You’re Breaking the Law!’

They wanted to grow food for their neighbors. Newton, Mass., officials said no.

Eli Katzoff and his girlfriend, Melissa Hoffman
Is this garden an eyesore? Eli Katzoff and his girlfriend, Melissa Hoffman, have been threatened with fines by Newton, Mass., officials. (Photo: Boston Globe/Getty Images)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Green shoots protrude downward from 35 bright orange buckets hanging from a tall, three-sided wooden structure. The height from which the buckets hang keeps pests away from the plants, which promise to produce an abundance of large, red tomatoes. At a university or out on a farm, this system would be nothing less than a marvel of human ingenuity. And a tasty one at that.

But not here.

Here in Newton, Mass., this is illegal.

That’s the message town officials delivered to Eli Katzoff and his girlfriend Melissa Hoffman, who are staying at Katzoff’s parents’ house while they travel in Israel. Katzoff and Hoffman say they tried a much smaller hanging tomato garden while living in California and saw the much larger suburban Boston front yard as a prime opportunity to try it on a larger scale—seven times larger. Their goal all along was to share the food they grow with neighbors and a local food pantry.

But following a recent conversation with city inspectors—who informed them that the construction of a permanent structure in a front yard can result in a fine of up to $300 per day if it is not dismantled—Katzoff and Hoffman are now trying to give away as many of the plants as they can. (By comparison, people found with more than an ounce of marijuana in Massachusetts face a one-time fine of as little as $500.) The city acknowledged that it had received no complaints from neighbors in the settled, upper middle-class New England community.

Still, “there’s no path for them,” John Lojek, the city’s commissioner of inspectional services, told The Boston Globe.

No path? For growing one’s own food? That, says Emily Broad Lieb, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, is a problem caused in part by “age-old zoning rules” bumping into people’s desire to grow their own food.

“It’s such a human thing,” she says. “It’s not like they’re building a space shuttle on their front lawn.”

She sees the Newton case as a microcosm of a problem that is popping up more and more, from battles over rooftop and urban gardens to bureaucracy surrounding farmers markets. Modern laws often jettison agriculture and food production to backyards and far-flung rural areas, she says. But with individuals and communities now interested in taking back some or all of their food production, “people are starting to realize that we have to change the rules.”

Some cities are making changes. Broad Lieb’s still-new program at Harvard, for instance, has already helped Memphis transform its food safety system, and several Mississippi Delta towns have changed their laws to be more hospitable to farmers markets. St. Paul, Minn., San Francisco, and Detroit are examples of cities that have become more amenable to agriculture projects. And just down the road from Newton, the City of Boston is rewriting its outdated zoning laws to allow for rooftop gardens and mid-sized urban farms.

Not only should cities and towns be allowing residents like Katzoff and Hoffman to engage in innovative agriculture projects, but Broad Lieb says municipalities should also encourage community-based sources of food.

“There should be incentives to do it,” she says. “We’re all talking about the costs of people not eating healthy and not eating enough. We need more food to go around.”

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