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Is Michelle Wu America’s Food Justice Mayor?

On a raw, 24-degree February morning, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is waxing philosophical about food and farming. Standing in front of a shivering who’s-who of Boston’s urban agriculture, food access, and economic development communities at the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm in the historically Black Mattapan neighborhood, Wu is announcing the formation of two new city offices—the Office of Food Justice and the GrowBoston: Office of Urban Agriculture—to tackle food access and production, respectively.

In a multicultural, nearly 400-year-old city with a massive economic gulf between the city’s wealthiest and poorest residents, the two offices will oversee what is arguably the most ambitious food policy agenda Boston has ever seen and one that could serve an example for other cities nationwide.

Michelle Wu hosts a press conference at the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm regarding the Office of Food Justice & Grow Boston. (Mayor’s Office Photo by John Wilcox)

When a reporter asks Wu what this day means to her personally, she launches into an heartfelt recollection. As a child, she says, her Taiwanese American family drove an hour every week to the grocery store “that had the vegetables and spices that my parents felt were home.” Then she reflects on the bureaucratic hurdles of opening a small tea shop in Chicago in her early 20s after graduating from Harvard, an experience that would inform and inspire her later work to clear some of those barriers in Boston as a City Hall staffer and then as an at-large city councilor.

“Food is so intrinsically part of our identities, our cultures, and our humanity,” she tells the crowd, “and the chance that Boston has to keep building the movement that has been growing here is incredible.”

“Food is so intrinsically part of our identities, our cultures, and our humanity, and the chance that Boston has to keep building the movement that has been growing here is incredible.”

Other Boston mayors have cared about food and farms, of course, but Michelle Wu is a former small restaurant owner whose experience navigating tricky licensing landscape in Chicago inspired, in part, her entry into law school (she is the first lawyer to serve as Boston’s mayor since 1984) and government service after that.

Food justice advocates laud the access they had to Wu when she was a city councilor and praise her depth of knowledge on the issues. She is Boston’s first mayor who is also a mother, and she knows how to feed a family, advocates say. But will a perfect storm of challenges in Boston—including a high-profile search for the city’s seventh schools superintendent in 15 years and the ongoing recovery from the pandemic—put food justice on the back burner in New England’s largest city?

A Foundation of Food, Family

By all accounts, Michelle Wu’s deep appreciation for food—and the power it has as a cultural force—runs deep. After eating her parents’ home-cooked Taiwanese food growing up, she moved east from Chicago in 2003 to attend Harvard and quickly landed a job at the prestigious Boston Consulting Group after graduation. But when her younger sisters called with the news that their mother, Yu-Min, was exhibiting signs of a mental health crisis, Wu and her then-boyfriend, Conor Pewarski, moved back to Chicago to care for her.

And instead of jumping into Chicago’s corporate world, as she had in Boston, Wu took her savings and opened Loose Leaf Tea Loft—a tea shop she imagined Yu-Min taking over as a retirement project when she was well enough. But red tape with the city delayed the shop’s opening several times, forcing Wu to “go beg our local alderman for assistance,” Wu told the Boston Globe in 2021. Once the shop opened, everyone helped keep it going, with Wu making dumplings and cookies and her sisters tasting the teas that they would serve. The space, a former antique shop, became the site of poetry readings, entrepreneurship courses, and open mic nights.

“I loved it. Once we actually got it open, it was beautiful,” Wu told the Globe. “It really felt like creating a space that was welcoming people into our home. We were able to find and become part of the local arts scene.”

The energy in the shop brought a needed distraction from her mother’s worsening mental health condition. Wu and her family were coming to grips with the reality that Yu-Min would never be well enough to take over the shop, so they sold it and moved her mother, sisters, and Conor (whom she married in 2011), to Boston in 2010. At 23, Wu became her sister Tori’s legal guardian and entered Harvard Law School, where she studied under and befriended Elizabeth Warren, now a Massachusetts senator.

Wu went to work as a law fellow in former Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration developing more streamlined processes for food trucks and restaurants to get their businesses up and running—work that was fueled directly by her own experience.

Dr. Julian Agyeman, professor of urban an environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, remembers receiving a call in 2013 from Wu, who was running for the Boston City Council as an at-large candidate and wanted to meet to discuss food and environmental policy. After a 30-minute meeting with her in a local café, Agyeman called up a colleague, Dr. Justin Hollander, who teaches land use and environmental planning at Tufts.

“I’ve just met the future mayor of Boston,” he remembers telling Hollander.

As a city councilor at large representing every resident of Boston from 2013 until 2021, Wu continue her work to cut red tape at City Hall to help small businesses. She co-wrote the city’s first BYOB legislation for restaurants, and filed legislation to limit the rights of chain stores and restaurants in Boston’s neighborhoods. Wu sponsored Boston’s Good Food Purchasing Program (GFFP)—which passed in 2019 but hasn’t been implemented yet—requiring large public food purchasers (including Boston Public Schools) to give preference to regional producers who use sustainable practices, protect the livelihoods of farmers and workers, treat animals humanely, and promote health and well-being in their foods.

After announcing her candidacy for mayor in 2020, Wu released a massive, 66-page “Food Justice Agenda for a Resilient Boston,” the result of years of listening and responding to community needs around nutrition, land use, and economic development.

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