Marlene Wilx, a resident of the East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn, relaxed in the shade of her tent at the East New York Farmers Market and bit into a huge, bright-orange carrot on a recent sunny Saturday. “Would you believe I just pulled this from the ground an hour ago?” she asked, motioning to the half-acre community garden behind her. Wilx is one of fifteen to twenty community gardeners who set up shop on Schneck Avenue every week to sell locally produced fruits and vegetables. She’s been doing it for nine years.
The East New York Farmers Market isn’t just any old summer market; it’s part of a multipronged, decade-old community venture called East New York Farms!, which endeavors to bring fresh, local, affordable food as well as sustainable living opportunities to the East Brooklyn neighborhood.
Local agriculture projects like East New York Farms! have become increasingly popular in the last few years as the effects of global warming grow more obvious. The fuel needed to transport foods across the country–or around the world–is a major contributor to America’s enormous tally of carbon emissions, and buying locally means an automatically more energy-efficient way to eat. Farmers’ markets and local food choices at grocery stores are popping up all over the place as a result: New York alone has upwards of 400 farmers’ markets statewide this year–about fifty more than last year.
Nationwide, groups are looking beyond the environmental benefits of local agriculture, and major social change is beginning to sprout from some local foods initiatives.
East New York Farms!, for example, was envisioned in 1995 by a group of local and citywide organizations who were brainstorming ideas for community growth in East New York–a neighborhood with a 31 percent poverty rate in 2000 (substantially higher than New York as a whole, at 19 percent). It had come to the group’s attention that East New York was becoming increasingly starved of resources, lacking safe, meaningful youth programs as well as fresh produce and employment opportunities. The idea was to develop some of the vacant lots in the area into urban farms and to employ youth interns to cultivate the land. All this would culminate in a seasonal farmers’ market that would provide space for community vendors to sell and purchase goods locally. In 1999–its opening year–the farmers’ market brought in a few hundred patrons. Last summer there were almost 14,000.
And the internship program is thriving. Twenty teenagers–eight returning and twelve new interns every year–are selected from a pool of applicants, who are drawn to the program through high school guidance counselors and school presentations made by United Community Centers (the group that now runs East New York Farms!). This year fifty-four young people applied, according to Urban Agriculture coordinator Jonah Braverman.
“It’s good for community members to experience intergenerational relationships,” said Braverman of the internship program. “It helps youth and adults understand the resources that the others can provide.” The interns, who work four days a week, including a Friday harvest, are responsible for everything from working in the garden to setting up tents and tables for the market on Saturday.