Gardening for Change in the City

Gardening for Change in the City

Local food projects and community gardens are springing up in urban areas all over the country, cutting a promising new path to empowering the poor.


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.

“I like it because it’s one of the only ways to actually give back to the community,” said Jason Thomas, 16, who is in his fourth year of working as an intern for the farm. His job involves training others how to plant, grow and harvest, and helping customers at the weekly market find what they’re looking for.

East New York Farms! is not the only project using local foods as a means of salvation in low-income communities. Programs like it have picked up steam all over the country in hopes of building sustainable resources in communities that have until now been largely overlooked by some promoters of the local foods movement.

The Food Trust in Philadelphia is another successful example. The project, founded in 1992, has grown from modest beginnings: It now sponsors twenty-eight farmers’ markets in the Philadelphia area, provides multiple nutrition programs to low-income schools, advocates for a farmers’ market development bill at the Philadelphia General Assembly and works to improve access to supermarkets in underserved areas. Its mission is simply “to ensure that everyone has access to affordable nutritious food.”

Although The Food Trust has been around for fifteen years, it has seen a lot of growth in the past few years, as awareness of the globalization of the food market in America has increased. David Adler, communications director for The Food Trust, sees this as only the beginning of a much bigger project. “Getting people to eat well…involves shaping the environment in a lot of ways: having an educated public, having the availability of healthy foods in communities, and having those foods be appealing to consumers,” he said.

The Food Trust has been especially successful with its unique public school initiatives: five separate programs that include everything from in-school, student-operated produce markets to extensive nutrition education courses at schools in low-income areas. There’s even a Healthy Times newspaper that teaches students both journalism skills and health education, distributed by classroom teachers.

“It’s important for kids to learn at an early age the importance of eating well,” said Adler. “We work through training teachers to incorporate nutrition into regular lessons. It can be a part of every subject in school. We want to incorporate it into math, social studies, sciences–you name it.”

The Food Project in Boston is similar to The Food Trust, focusing especially on youth programs that give teenagers, as its website puts it, “unusually responsible roles” growing, harvesting and distributing crops in the city. The Food Project grows almost a quarter-million pounds of food a year, half of which is donated to local shelters (the other half is sold to crop shares and farmers’ markets).

The Seattle Youth Garden Works program was launched in 1995 to create opportunities and job training for homeless youth. As well as learning how to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables in one of two local gardens, youth are also taught how to write a résumé, track sales and inventory, and provide customer service, among other marketing skills. They also learn to cook meals made from garden-grown crops.

Local agriculture is making more and more sense as a means for social change–especially as demand for local produce increases. Although popularity of the local foods movement continues to swell, corporate agriculture remains a major threat to farmers. “A lot of the farmers that are small-scale are going out of business because there aren’t enough people supporting them,” said Braverman. “It’s important to connect low-income neighborhoods and urban communities with people who are struggling to create a sustainable and just food system.”

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