The Food Project, Boston
“Creating personal and social change through sustainable agriculture” is the mission of The Food Project, an NGO in the Boston area that combines urban agriculture and youth development. Since its beginnings in 1991 the organization’s many successes have made it a model for similar programs countrywide. The Food Project operates both urban and suburban farms – from a garden within a city block to a 31 acre farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
Its goals are straightforward: to increase access to healthy local food in the city of Boston and to create an intentionally diverse community of young people. More specifically the 5 year plan is to increase access to healthy local food in the city of Boston by 5%. The Food Project works on a neighborhood level to increase farmers markets while partnering with other organizations to get fresh, local food into under-served communities and schools.
“We’re also looking to increase the amount of land we have so we can grow more food inside Boston… and in the suburbs,” said Associate Director, Jen James. But for now the Food Project deals with the land issue with innovative solutions like a rooftop garden at the Boston Medical Center. In the suburbs, the farm is utilizing land on loan from the town of Lincoln.
“Suburban agriculture for us is farming within a community,” said James. “We’re not our own farm we’re not fifty miles away from the nearest town. So Boston is accessible, other towns are accessible, there are cars driving by here… but you’re still on 31 acres in the middle of a suburban community… it feels a little different than being rural.”
But anyone will tell you that growing food is just part of the organization’s impact on communities. The intentionally diverse programs break down as 60% of the youth come from inner-city Boston neighborhoods like Roxbury and Dorchester, while 40% come from the wealthy suburbs around Lincoln. Youth work at both farm sites in Lincoln and in Roxbury. “It has a huge impact on how young people perceive difference as they go through the rest of their lives,” said James.
“When people look at replicating The Food Project model they love the part about putting young people on the land and growing food and what’s harder for almost every other community we interact with is bringing together the two disparate groups and doing meaningful work with both groups”. Its no wonder that organizations hold The Food Project in such high regard. Their programs keep growing, inspiring change through the simple act of growing food. -KS
Montview Neighborhood Farm, Northampton, MA
We arrived to the Montview Neighborhood Farm a bit late for our meeting. We got lost biking down a dirt road surrounded by corn fields that went out as far as the eye could see. I didn’t remember huge corn fields as a description that Paige – one of the farmer managers – had given me. She said it was pretty close to downtown and we would have to cross a soccer field to get to the farm, not corn fields. Even though no soccer field was in sight and we were heading further away from downtown we kept searching on this dirt path as huge trucks filled with potatoes passed us kicking up a cloud of dust, we kept searching. The group was asking, “Where are we?” and all I really knew from good observation skills was that we were not near the small human powered farm. We were in the middle of mechanized large scale farm land – not the alternative farm we were trying to find. We turned around retraced our steps and read street signs with open eyes. We found it and yes there was a soccer field we crossed to get to the farm and yes it was in a neighborhood right outside of downtown Northampton.
Montview Neighborhood Farm is a human powered CSA and soon will have an edible food forest. It is a small scale organic farm, located on 3.2 acres of city-owned conservation land. They use hand tools and human power to grow their crops, and sell them to the surrounding neighborhood at an onsite farm stand. Their vision states : The farm is part of a larger vision of neighborhood production, in which communities are strengthened and dependence on fossil fuel is lessened. They are certainly staying true to this vision with their creations of permanent beds, no tilling practices, sheet mulching techniques, hand tool use, and good outreach to the surrounding community.
Paige, one of the three farm managers, met with us to talk about the small scale farm and about her thoughts on farming in this day in age. We told her about some of the examples we’ve seen of more and more young people getting into farming and she couldn’t agree more. She even said, “a new identity of farm is emerging, these little micro farms in pockets of urban areas in rural areas where people are just choosing to do things in a different way” is certainly growing. She has been seeing much like we have been seeing, more and more people getting interested and finding land to grow food, not only for themselves but for others. These are not traditional farmers; these are new farmers finding ways to productively use small swaths of land in urban, suburban, and rural places to grow food for themselves and for their neighbors.
Montview Neighborhood Farm “hardly uses any money”, Paige told us – they have two fundraisers a year – one swing dance, one contra dance party, and they have one grant for the forest garden they are creating – most of the money comes from the money they generate from the food they sell. The reason why they are able to make this a viable little farm is because they use low tech tools and low cost approaches that make it much more possible. They give themselves and allotted number of uses of a truck to haul wood chips and other bulk items, but other then that no fossil fuel is used in the production of their fruits, vegetables, and flowers. They don’t pay for repairs on a tractor or fuel costs for a tiller because they use no till practices, they sheet mulch to help them control weeds, they make and use compost, and they use hand tools and muscle power for the rest. These methods are certainly transferable to yards and Paige was envisioning with us to turn city parks into food growing spaces. Small “farms” are possible and are and will be necessary to feed ourselves with foods that are fresh, pesticide/herbicide free, and grown with love.
Slow the Plow, Middlebury VT
Middlebury College in Vermont is not an agriculture school. Although it lies in between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains in one of New England’s most fertile valleys, it is quite the opposite – about as liberal and artsy as they come. But nonetheless, a group of students founded the Middlebury College Organic Garden, or Slow the Plow, in 2003 and since then it has become one of the best examples of a Farm to College program in the country.
At a college known for its international programs and overextended student body, the garden still attracts a fair number of students who want to stick around Middlebury for a summer to tend to the rows of sweet cherry tomatoes, lemon basil and heirloom eggplants. In addition, students take tours of neighboring farms to connect the garden experience with Vermont’s rich agricultural heritage.
One of Middlebury’s most well-known faculty members, environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote an essay about the garden in his book “Wandering Home”, saying, “A year ago it was just a bump in that expanse of cow corn. But now—well, to call it a garden is not enough. It’s a good half-acre of vegetables, as well-tended and orderly a farmlet as any you’d ever want to see”.
The garden lies on top of a knoll less than a mile west of the campus. Inside its loose boundaries students, faculty, staff and community members join forces to effective global change through local food production. The land is also a scenic escape from the rigorous academic life at Middlebury. At one edge stands a tool shed and office complete with prayer flags, a living roof and windows that look out into the corn fields. Students ride up the hill from campus to spend time wandering in between the neat rows of vegetables and flowers.
Slow the Plow’s relationship with dining services at Middlebury make the farming experience an especially rewarding one for students. Walking into any one of the cafeterias at the college, you can find the garden’s bounty included in the buffet-style prepared food. Mizuna grown on the knoll may complement the day’s salad; tomatoes appear in many dishes at the height of their harvest in early fall. The farm has a strict policy of non-competition with local farmers and for this reason only do business with campus dining services.
But the farm was started to do more than sell to the cafeteria. “At the garden, we grow more than just food,” reads the farm’s mission statement. In “diverse yet interconnected ways, the garden fulfills our guiding vision of it as a place for nourishing body, mind, and spirit”. A number of classes use the garden as an additional classroom. It is a site for research projects, photography class and morning meditation. It is an environment in which students can ponder, ‘what is a good life?’ an important questions that can be easily obscured by the jumble of college life. Under the Vermont skies on the knoll west of campus, the answer seems simple. –KS
The Intervale, Burlington VT
A visit with the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vermont perfectly models a large urban food center. Burlington and Intervale contained the unique luxury of land and a local governance that supported land use for local agriculture. Once a polluted dumpsite in the 1980’s, Intervale metamorphisized into a now 350 acre space of “farmland, nusery, trails, wildlife corridor, and compost production”. Intervale’s core components are: the Intervale Compost Products, Calkins Farmstead, Healthy City, Intervale Conservation Nursery, Food Enterprise Center, and Agricultural Developmental Services.
Intervale’s most impressive efforts is a unique program in which they support beginner small scale farmers through an incubator system. This project is under the Agricultural Developmental Services. Labeled as the “Intervale Farms Program”, which began in 1990, it leases land and all the necessary equipment associated with agriculture. It also assists with market access and ‘busincess planning resources’ so that independent farms establish a necessary financial foundation and are better able to enter the market as a viable agricultural business.
The unique situation of this program is that these farms are all in the same vicinity allowing for a mentor like community to develop. There are currently thirteen farms operating on 120 acres of farmland utilized for anything from specialty crops for fine dining to greens sold at the farmer’s market and local CSA. This makes a world of a difference in possibly detering young agriculturally minded people from becoming a small, local farmer. The program allows for three years to pass in which the farmer receives coaching in setting up a business plan while the Intervale Center subsidizes costs of equipment, land and facilities. After the three year mark, the Center gradually applies the realistic cost of land and resources while assisting a young farmer to either move out to buy his/her own farm and business or become instead a mentor to a newcoming farmer.
We visited two farms that were a part of Intervale’s Agricultural Center; one in which was a farm in its infancy, the Pitchfork Farm, and another that had been there over three years called the Arethusa Collective Farm. The Pitfork Farm best exemplified our pursuit of finding a new generation of rural farmers. Eric and Molly are a young couple who both went to college, not necessarily pursuing Agricultural degrees, but left with a desire to work in the dirt and learn how to make it out in the Burlington lifestyle of urban living while selling at farmer’s markets and restaurants. The Arethusa Collective Farm, powered by a handful of young farmers, exhibited a unique contraption that attracted our attention. They received a grant to experiment with the use of a bicycle powered weed machine. It functioned so that a farmer could lie down and pick weeds while moving through the pedal power, instead of kneeling and straining one’s back in the process of picking weeds for hours. These two farms and groups of ‘new? American Farmer’ folks were a glimpse into the growing range of farmers incubating at Intervale.
Another highlighted component of the Intervale to which we explored was the Healthy City initiative. Healthy City is a farming intensive program that teaches at-risk youth to grow and market produce. Youth ages 14 and up are involved in all aspects of successfully operating a small business, from ordering seeds and planting, to writing a business plan and creating a farm stand. Throughout the summer, youth are paid for their labor, and feed their families and under-served communities with fresh nutritious food. Each teen works 20 hours a week and is paid for their time. We didn’t have the opportunity to meet the youth, but spent time harvesting eggplants, peppers, and colorful flowers with Aziza Malik who runs the Healthy City program. She, too, was a young woman interested in the farmer livelihood as well as what the urban has to offer.
Intervale’s compost facilities surpass most urban waste treatment centers. Intervale composts 20,000 tons of waste from Burlington’s commercial and residential debris. They collect dairy residuals from large companies like Ben and Jerry’s as well as food waste from schools, restaurants, and large companies like IBM. They return the rich hummus back to the community by selling finished compost products that they can deliver in bulk with their purple biodiesel fueled truck or at the Intervale Center. With a catchy phrase like “Don’t Treat Your Soil Like Dirt”, how could any Sustainable Agriculture/Development advocate not be smitten? Intervale’s progressive developments have led it to be one of the most prominent models for sustainable cities. The Center is constantly experimenting on every sustainable, environmentally and economically efficient front. Currently they are planning with the Burlington government, The Food Enterprise Center, in which they hope to build a distribution center with a “combination of fresh food production, value-added food processing, green energy use, and social enterprise”. Every city in the U.S. needs to have a local government that works with organizations such as Intervale to promote a better local economy with healthy food and thus healthy citizens.
The Rooftop Gardens Project
Rooftop gardens are sexy. Though hardly a new technology, these little green sanctuaries are gaining popularity as a way to produce food in the city. The image of balconies in full bloom, of neighbors banding together to grow food in urban lots, was made famously cool as Havana’s communitarian response to Cuba’s version of peak oil. But more than simply in-style, urban sustainability is a global work in progress, with a variety of local examples. One organization in Montreal is pioneering local food sustainability and explicitly reversing traditional development roles at the same time. It all started with a garden.
5 years ago, two very different organizations got together and the Rooftop Garden Project was born. Alternatives, an international NGO based in Quebec, and Santropol Roulant, a lively community center and meals on wheels program, started collaborating to inspire urbanites to rethink their connection with food. The partnership is working with partners in Cuba, Senegal, Mexico and Morocco to develop what they see as the most ecological solution for greening a city – soil-less gardening.
Soil-less gardening is a combination of hydroponics, permaculture and organic gardening techniques. This technology is simple to build from recycled materials. They are low-cost and lightweight, making them easily disseminated to rooftops, balconies and other urban nooks and crannies. They also require a lot less water than traditional gardens, a precious resource that cities often lack.
Perhaps Alternatives’ most prominent example of container gardening is smack dab in the middle of McGill University’s campus, where outside the Geography Department dozens of vegetables sprout from planters made from recycled materials. Beans climb the side of a large concrete staircase, topped by tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and greens. Each container is specially outfitted for maximum efficiency of water intake; basically a tube leading to a reservoir – a simple technology used in cities around the world.
Alternatives started over ten years ago as the Action and Community Network for International Development, a solidarity organization with programs in 23 countries around the world. 50% of their funds come from government sources like the Canadian International Development Agency. Their youth internship program sends a number of Canadians abroad to understand the realities of developing countries and work for Alternatives’ vision of economic and social justice.
Along those lines is a vision of food justice and local economies – and what better place to start then back home in Montreal. And it is just scratching the surface, said Garden Coordinator Rotem Ayalon. “Gardening for us is just a tool. It’s just the means to get people interested and get people excited about thinking about the other aspects of their lives”. The international NGO then started putting their feelers out for a local organization to partner with and found Santropol Roulant. “By inspiring the Roulant to have a garden, they’ve now started to do an environmental assessment of their garbage,” said Ayalon. “They’re trying to cut down on their energy consumption and make the whole organization more conscious of its impact.”
Its hard to imagine Santropol Roulant fitting anything else into their operations. Their space is a couple blocks down from McGill on St. Urbain Street in the hip Plateau district. Two waiters from the Santropol restaurant wanted to start an NGO that would link youth and seniors in the neighborhood. “Roulant”, French for “on wheels”, is one component of their whirlwind social enterprise run by a rotating cast of fun, twenty-somethings. They started out twelve years ago delivering meals on wheels to home-bound seniors and others with a loss of autonomy. Lasagnas, fish dinners, pizzas were made from scratch in a volunteer-run kitchen and then delivered by bicycle daily. Working with food eventually lent itself to discussions about the sustainability of their meals. Volunteers established relationships with grocery stores and a sort of sanctioned dumpster diving routine ensued.
The garden program started as partly a demonstration in urban sustainability and as a plan to grow a percentage of their own food, followed by an entire eco-renevation. Today Santropol Roulant includes an on-site community bike shop and large-scale vermicomposting. They are currently delivering 100 meals five time a week. And depend on 20 or more volunteers daily to do everything they do. A big part of The Roulant’s identity has evolved to be a model for urban sustainability – in addition to the daily operations of a meals on wheels program.
For Alternatives, the partnership has inspired them to model easily replicable techniques used by their global partners, connecting Montreal with those places through plants, said Ayalon. “By growing food – a simple act – we’ve inspired a whole transformation of the system”. –KS
Action Communiterre, Montreal Canada
A spontaneous guided tour of a collective plot in the NDG neighborhood.
This past Sunday, the 26th of August, Kat and I (Lara was spending time with her Mom) were yearning for some spiritual solace so we went searching for a Unitarian service in Montreal. We missed All Souls and wanted a place where we could sit, listen, and reflect on life with some open minded, open hearted UUs. We found just the right spot. The church we attended was sharing poetry as a group that morning and the poems ranged from Casey at Bat to self-written poems about freely flying song birds. We sat, listened, and reflected a bit about our lives and this journey we’ve taken.
After poems were shared everyone was invited for juice and cookies – a perfect timre to meet locals. We met a lovely woman and we began talking about our project and that’s when she told us about Action Communiterre, a collective gardening group in the city that actually has a garden right behind the church. Well, if you don’t know by now we certainly do love gardens, especially the ones that grow vegetables, so we went to go check it out and our new friend became our tour guide.
The small garden behind the church has 12 households and 1 garden leader (who helps facilitate garden activities and teaches organic growing methods) who belong to this garden. As a group they help attend to the entire garden, not just one plot, and they work on planting, weeding, pruning, and harvesting things together. They divide out the shares of vegetables each week amongst the group and they give a share of vegetables to community organizations and social services. Our friend told us she has learned more about gardening with this group then when she experimented on her ‘individual plot’ in a community garden. Each week the group meets once or twice (depending on people’s schedules) and they share in work tasks. The garden leader helps bring people together to develop skills and confidence in growing vegetables and flowers, but growing them in ways that are respectful to our environment.
Action Communiterre is a non-profit organization that runs 10 organic gardens which they call the Victory Garden Network and their main goal is to bring residents together working on gardens that enhance food security and bring about awareness around food security issues. They define food security as being achieved “when everyone in a community has access to food in sufficient quantity and quality, obtained from non-emergency sources, that has been produced in a way that respects people and the environment”. Action Communiterre is taking great steps in a more food secure direction. They are placing people together, teaching organic growing methods, and sharing the bounty of their ‘collective garden’ not only with each other but with others who might not have the ability to grow it themselves or simply have access to high quality organic produce that these gardens yield.
Montreal has a lot of gardeners and it has a reputation for being a city with well run community gardens, but I must say we are impressed with Action Communiterre’s collective garden model. We discovered it behind a church, next to their parking lot, a space where 14 or more individuals gather to work, learn, and grow things together. Our friend and tour guide is a single mom with two children and she gardens and brings fresh vegetables home – she has time because she works collectively with others who share the time with her – that what makes her garden and the 9 other gardens grow. – LT
Germantown Community Farm, Hudson Valley, NY
We were only going to spend a day at the Germantown Community Farm. But just a couple of hours into talking with Antoine, one of the farmers, and touring the beautiful old farmhouse and grounds, we were hooked. Our days there were filled with work in the kitchen garden, harvesting in the CSA field, gawking at goats, and cooking and enjoying large meals together. We even spent one unusually cold, rainy morning picking blueberries at a neighboring orchard. The farm has goats, geese, ducks and chickens. Goats’ milk and cheese were abundant and included in just about everything we ate. It was a farm experience out of a storybook.
Germantown always has guests at dinner. A surprising number of people drop in to this remote place in the Hudson Valley, about 40 miles north of Poughkeepsie. The crowd is reflective of the folks who live at the farm: young, radical, creative – I’m not sure how else to describe. Several farmers also work with the Icarus Project, a mental health collective with an international following. Living in Germantown are musicians, writers, blacksmiths and other visionaries – all under one roof. The people we met there were perhaps most accepting of our wacky project. Hitting the road with bikes and a video camera didn’t seem so weird.
The ‘founders’ of the Community Farm are a close-knit group of women – who gradually moved together to Germantown from a homestead near by. There is a core group of 8 or so people that work the land at the farm, but are not quite self-sufficient yet. Most people have to work other jobs to support themselves and pay rent, several work landscaping and doing odd jobs in the Hudson Valley. It has been a functioning farm for about three years, and this past year the group decided to start a CSA. This season, they have brought on Ben, who takes care of the crops they sell to the community.
While managing a farm, the group at Germantown is constantly thinking about social justice and how they can expand the mission of the place to be about more than growing food. This year with their CSA, they’ve made it possible for wealthier customers to sponsor poor families – giving them a subsidized or free share of fresh, organic produce every week. The core group at Germantown seems to always be talking about big issues. While we were there, they had assigned each other readings about anti-racism. Many are thinking how to make their all-white farm project more accessible to people of color, as well as opportunities for involvement within immigrant farming.
The days were filled with many responsibilities on the farm, but interrupted constantly by great conversations, occasional music, and constant snacking from the garden. Germantown was an inspiring stop for many reasons. Each night we retired to our barn loft to sleep, we had so much to reflect upon…. Goats jumping over the moon. -KS
Poughkeepsie Farm Project
Farm interns at PFP conduct a game of “No Tomato Sauce”.
The Poughkeepsie Farm Project (PFP) is located in the mid-Hudson Valley in the city of Poughkeepsie. It is a member-supported non-profit farm that grows enough vegetables on 7 acres to feed 240 members, provides choice vegetable selections at the Poughkeepsie Farmers’ Market, and gives weekly shares to area food pantries and shelters. Their main mission is to work “toward a just and sustainable food system in the mid-Hudson Valley” and they attempt to accomplish this goal through their various projects/programs. PFP has five different programs: the City of Poughkeepsie Main Street Farmers Market Sponsorship, the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), City Seeds, Educational Tours & Events, and their Food Share program. These various programs work towards educating Poughkeepsie residents and local college students about local food and farming and they also inspire collaboration with local organizations to work together towards improving access to healthy, locally-grown food.
When we visited PFP we were lucky to participate in several of their programs. We witnessed collaboration with the Green Teen Program, which allows Poughkeepsie and Beacon teens to come work on the farm one day a week on special projects. For some teens weeding and turning beds is about as much fun as going to the dentist but even if there are complaints being shouted up and down the bed, you end up hearing “ooos”, “awwws” and “mmmms” spark the air once in a while. One teen tastes something from the garden that they like, another one finds a squirming creature that catches their eye, and another teen says, “I just like to work hard.”.
The Green Teens split up into two groups and while one half worked the City Seeds Garden, the other gathered under the big white tent to take part in food education activities. Two farm interns from Vassar initiated a game of “No Tomato Sauce” a mapping activity and quiz game about where our commonly used food items come from. -LT
East New York Farms
East New York Farms! was one of our most powerful stops. We introduced ourselves to its initiatives by attending their farmer’s market, which draws upon a diverse crowd of folks and food from the surrounding neighborhood of East New York. ENY Farms! began in 1995 as a vision for community based food production that encompassed economic development as well as a greening effort. They have developed into more than what their vision expected. Not only does ENY Farms! employ 20 teens year from the surrounding neighborhood to learn how to grow food on a half-acre urban farm, but through a leadership program, they also sell their produce at the ENY farmer’s market.
In addition to managing goods at a market, ENY youth also help community gardeners in the neighborhood at a nearby urban farm grow food that also sells at the market.We visited the ENY Farmer’s market before meeting with the youth during their standard working hours of the week. We were struck with the vitality and urban variety that all should expect from a farmer’s market. There was an assortment of fish and crabs from small-scale, local fishermen and Jamaican women selling not only vegetables but spices and ethnic packaged goods.
One woman who had been a part of developing the market in its infancy back in 2002, was there to offer a taste of her heirloom herbs and tea, as well as wear a type of hat she sells regularly at the market embellished with newspapers. One stand included the newly allotted urban acre farm in the neighborhood that had two women from the garden that collectively sell their harvest. They were eager to share information on the colorfully assorted vegetables and the location of their plots in case we visited the site. In the middle of the market, there were half of the ENY Farms! teens stopping patrons to share the food insecurity issues that most East New Yorkers faced in comparison to high end neighborhoods of Manhattan.
The education component of ENY Farms! clearly met its goal of equipping the youth to understand the gravity of how food access is connected to poorer, ‘underserved’ communities. At the end of the street, we discovered the ENY Farms! youth interns beautifully displaying the fruits of their labor and well equipped to answer any questions we might have had about some of the uncommon looking vegetables. We interviewed a few teens, including a young Latina woman, who had returned to work with ENY Farms as a farmer’s market manager. Her experience with the organization had shifted her life direction a great deal and had enough influence in that she had hopes of returning to El Salvador, where her mother is from, to help with local agricultural movements within the country.
We not only left the market that day with bags full of a bass, vegetables, and herbs; but with a positive impression that the effort these organizations put forth are certainly having a direct impact on the communities with whom are also a part of rebuilding their very own LOCAL neighborhood.Our return to ENY Farms was to directly do some volunteer work at their urban farm and interview some of the teens. Despite the intense heat and sun that day, the youth split into groups of either harvesting or weeding and knew very well of how to do it.
I harvested the most delicious cherry tomatoes while talking with David who assists the Urban Agriculture Coordinator, Jonah. David, a mid twenty year old, shared a agricultural vision for himself, like an increasing number of disillusioned suburbanites who seek hope and joy in a future full of preserved organic farmland, outdoor work, and the autonomous empowerment in food production. The difference in this generation of ‘new farmer’ folks, like David, is that they seek to change the fact that not everyone is benefiting from the revitalized availability of fresh, local and organic food.
It’s commonplace among the ENY Farms! teens that their neighborhood lacks grocery stores and that they themselves might have recently given up soda, but their family members continue to indulge in fast food that surround their communities alongside liquor stores. Meeting youth immersed in the lost process of growing food is always a pleasure on our journey.
Not everybody like the young market manager might want a future in farming, but the nutrition education, marketing skills and empowerment gained in this youth venture are worth a lot – well surpassing my experience with food as a teenager. – LS
Just Food, New York City
Owen handing out fliers on Chicken Care in the Bronx
“What we want to see is more food grown in the city – and even more healthy food eaten in the city,” Owen told us in the Just Food office in Manhattan . One way his organization is doing that is by training community gardeners as informal extension agents for urban agriculture. Owen Taylor is the coordinator of Just Food’s City Chicken Program, part of the City Farms initiative – a concentrated effort to get community gardeners in all five boroughs to grow, market and distribute fresh food in their communities.
City Farms has three areas: market development, the training program, and the livestock program. They coordinated a number of workshops throughout the year, including a ‘training of trainers’ where Just Food works with a small team of gardeners to train them in adult education, hands-on learning, and practical skills to pass on as the informal extension agents in the city.
We had an opportunity to attend a Chicken Care workshop in the Bronx, at the Garden of Eden, where community members are raising a number of chicken and rabbits for local consumption. A large family was hanging out in the shade of a central gazebo. The surrounding walls are covered in colorful murals picturing plants alongside a large Puerto Rican flag. For those who attend Just Food’s workshops, the idea is that they will then ‘pass on’ that knowledge – a model used in many organizations, including Heifer International, the main sponsor of Just Food’s livestock programs.
Just Food started in 1995, largely in response to the loss of family farms in New York State. The Community Supported Agriculture program now operates 50 CSAs in the city; with farmers delivering to neighborhood vegetable stands, workplaces, and other communities who have limited access to fresh, afforable food. They also have a program called Fresh Food for All which connects farmers with emergency food providers.
When we asked Owen about his vision for the future, he talked about a need to share and retain knowledge about growing food in the city, starting with a solid training facility. So far, Just Food is doing a good job filling this void, with many formal workshops and trainings for the people of New York. -KS
Rodale Pleasant Park Community Garden, Harlem
The Pleasant Park Garden’s wonderful mosiac
New York, with its historical cultural diversity, inevitably coated our research with a diverse range of local food initiatives. We learned how communities once rooted in gardens ‘back home’ then felt a desire to cultivate something of the like in the city. Once an abandoned site that collected urban waste, the now labeled Rodale Pleasant Park Community Garden was a fitting stop for us one early evening. The unusually cool and windy dusk evoked a romantic vision of gardens as a church stood on the opposite end of the entrance and laughter abounded throughout the space. Hannah Riesling-White with Green guerillas allowed for us to sit in on a community garden meeting. We couldn’t imagine this seemingly perfect place to ever have been full of trash. There were raised beds, a compost toilet, fruit trees at the conclusion of a path that began with a mosaic design, and children running around without any street disturbance.
The garden began as a initiative with the Little Sisters of the Assumption and a few Latina women, like Marcilena whom we interviewed. According to Marcilena, with the aid of ‘Little Sister’s, a few women from the surrounding neighborhood cleaned out an abandoned lot full of trash and began to plant some fruit trees and vegetables. Most of the Latina’s, having had their own gardens or farm work as a form of livelihood back in their native countries, all shared a history with growing food and thus an interest in practicing the same in their relatively new environments. The lot was owned by the city through the Greenthumb city park system to which the group received the key to access the garden space. Land ownership shifted as former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened urban garden space in the 1990’s until assistance of a variety of resources released the terrain under the ‘financial haven’ of the New York Restoration Project’s (NYRP) possession. The transition allowed the garden to expand in construction projects like a compost toilet, a well designed outdoor classroom/shelter space, raised beds, rain barrels, and mosaic tiles. Most of this garden community, which consists of 12 women, also have the annual educational opportunity to visit rural farm sites like the Rodale Institute.
Not only did the garden space that these women created impress us, but they also exhibited great devotion to the community, their children, and even interest in us. We explored the garden and stood in on their meeting until Hannah introduced us to the group. Our Spanish introduced our story but we did not expect for the women to inquire more than we would of them. Their curiosity led us to discuss where we stayed and ate to whether or not we feared wild animals when we camped.
Afterwards we wandered around the garden tasting Papalo, well known among the women, as a medicinal herb as well as a rich food enhancer. We interviewed Marcilena, who was among the first few to help initiate the garden project, and who was kind enough to share her story. The evening concluded with Hannah sharing her insight into observing the shift in how proud the community had become as a result of being a part of a beautifying urban garden space. We felt honored to have minimally shared an evening with an extraordinary group of women that we believed had more to offer than we did.
La Familia Verde Farmers’ Market, The Bronx
La Familia Verde Farmer’s Market is a bustling place on the edge of Tremont Park in the Bronx. Every Tuesday from July to November five area farmers sell fresh produce to the neighborhood. On the Saturday when we visited, Ms. Ena, a Jamacian immigrant was giving out samples of her famous sweet relish; youth employed through a city nutrition program we’re demonstrating how much sugar is in soft drinks; and many onlookers gathered as local advocacy group, Just Food was doing a cooking demonstration on the side of the road.
“Get your fresh vegetables! We grow ‘em, you eat ‘em!” market manager, Karen Washington shouted from under the shade of the produce tents. Every Tuesday, neighbors hear this call and know that they can get fresh, affordable food on the street corner, using cash, EBT or WIC.
“Everybody’s coming out of the woodwork now… its booming,” she said. The other food options in the neighborhood are sparse at best. Chinese, fast food, and grocery stores with plenty of packaging and preservatives; Washington said that many in the community are at risk of heart disease and diabetes. “We’re in a position of educating people. Its up to the individual – once they taste it, they’re going to make that choice.”
Four years ago, Washington started selling vegetables from her own backyard in an attempt to make up for the lack of fresh produce available in the community. With farming in her family history, when she moved to the Bronx in 1985, she started growing things in the urban setting. “I noticed the difference in taste – it just opened my eyes. There’s got to be a better way,” she decided.
In addition to improving access to fresh food, La Familia Verde is also responsible for a renaissance of Tremont Park, which has transitioned from a bleak, dangerous place to a bustling market with many people now utilizing the space for recreation. When we visited, there were dozens of families walking, biking, chatting as their kids played on the playground. The neighborhood’s immigrant community was out in full force to enjoy a day in the park.
Washington is also involved in local legislation to make city community gardens a permanent fixture. Under the Guiliani administration, many gardens were under threat of development. Once upon a time, gardens sprung up in abandoned lots in the worst neighborhoods all over New York. Now the double edged sword is that as gardens transform neighborhoods, they become safer, and more liveable – a good thing for real estate developers as well as residents. Food security activists like Washington see another future for the gardens.
“In the beginning the focus was on beautification. You had a lot of empty lots, people came in and made them beautiful. Now we’re at a point where we’re not only making the place beautiful, but we’re making it healthy.” Washington hopes to city funding for a food policy project that would designate a certain number of gardens as city farms, or productive green spaces for the purpose of feeding the surrounding community.
“This is all we got,” said Washington. “We’ve got to make the best of what we got – not only for us, but its got to be a legacy.”
Suppers for Sobriety, Central New Jersey
Walking into the public edible schoolyard, we were already impressed with Dorothy’s efforts in getting elementary students curriculum matched with the herb/flower/vegetable garden she cultivated herself. After tireless efforts of finding a place to establish a garden, Dorthy went straight to the principal of the elementary school her children once attended. She received immediate approval to build a permaculture based garden that served not only the children, but also extraordinary pollinators, like the Monarch butterfly and the Swallowtail. Dorthy’s garden was half of what she most avidly builds, which is Suppers for Sobriety.
Dorthy wouldn’t have gone into her humble work, if it were not for Fran amicably pestering her to talk about her main project. Dorthy co-founded Suppers for Sobriety with another woman, Cindy, while she completed a Masters in Counseling. On the SFS website the mission reads as a “table-based recovery community that supports people in recovery and their loved ones. The only requirement for membership is the desire to lead a healthier life in body, mind, and spirit.”
Dorthy, a holistic health practitoner, openly shared the toxic levels her body held when she discovered she was allergic to almost everything. On the website she shares her personal struggles with a variety of addictions that spurred her to a path of recovery that involved nutrition and community oriented meals. Dorthy writes, “In the back of my mind a tape was playing of something my mentor told me long ago. The healer who saw me through the darkest hours of my illness said, “Your solution to all problems is to cook dinner.” He wasn’t wrong.” We were all captivated by the light she shed to food issues to which most of us remained ignorant on.
We engaged her through questions and discussion of personal stories dealing with the multi-layers Dorthy shared with us. One statement that stuck most to my mind for what I consider for its revolutionary undertones, was when she repeated that the “less nature restricts, the more authoritative figures need to step in”. In relation to Dorthy’s philosophy, we took that to mean that the more removed people become from nature and our individual biological needs, the more dependent humanity becomes on larger, institutional systems. We are our own best experts. From gardens to alternative healing, Dorthy meant so many things to a connecting thread of alternative models to a industrial mono-culture.
The Urban Nutrition Initiative (UNI), Philadelphia
We met with Debbie and Nasser at the picnic tables inside the Urban Nutrition Initiative’s garden at University City High School in West Philadelphia. In the 1800s this spot was grazing land for farmers taking their milk cows to the Reading Market, still operating in downtown Philadelphia. In the 1970s, the mayor deemed the area blighted and after fierce resistance from “the Black Bottom” commnity, Penn won, and the whole area was bulldozed. Schools intended for the children of Penn professors were built on the site; the future garden was a track and field run. Now Univeristy city high school is one of the most violent in the city, but because of the original plans, the building has a greenhouse that is now utilized by UNI. Now the garden is planted, harvest and marketed by high schoolers – and utilized by many in the community.
UNI emerged from a U Penn anthropology class that focused on nutrition in the city when Philly was labeled one of the most obese and unhealthy cities, and there was a big diabetes scare in the 1990s. Through the Center for Community Partnerships, some at Penn started asking how the University could have a more responsible relationship with the community at large. They started selling fruit at lunchtime at the school, they vans they sold produce out of, and the idea of a garden emerged. Today, UNI is now in 25 schools doing mostly nutrition education in the classrooms. There are 12 school gardens, and offshoot programs like nutrition outreach at churches and a fitness program. They are not financially supported by U Penn, and are looking for other support to grow their garden program.
One of the first things you notice walking into the lush garden, is that there is no fence. Debbie, the garden coordinator, said that eventhough this has led to some problems with vandalism, it is still important for the garden’s mission to be open for all. But the neighborhood is still kindof a weird space, in the shadows of hugely powerful U Penn, the largest employer and landowner in the city. “it’s a really volitile area,” said Debbie. “We’re on kindof the gentrification line. Everything northwest of here has yet to be gentrfied and everything east and south has been gentrified and taken over by penn and now is a more affluent community. So, its paletable.”
When UNI sells their produce at farmers markets, the students learn both markets – the affluent Clark Park market, and the stand at 52nd and Haverford, a poorer neighborhood where 95% of customers use some kind of public assistance or food voucher to make purchases. Prices are arranged accordingly. UNI walks this line to both make enough money to continue, and to subsidize feeding Philly’s neediest in terms of access to food.
Nasser Gilliam is going to be a senior at University City High School. He started working at the garden during his 9th grade year through Youth Works, a federally funded program that provides jobs for low-income youth. Nasser told us that UNI had had a big impact on his diet, “I don’t eat 100% healthy because I can’t, because its not there – but its here though. I eat healthy as much as possible. But I eat all sorts of crazy stuff I never thoguht I’d eat in my life.” He said that UNI is a big part of the school and its changed a lot of his classmate’s eating habits too.
“I be surprised when I see certain people see the stuff we cook, because I know when I first started working here and they used to cook stuff, I never used to try nothing. They just kept on encouraging me to eat stuff that I ain’t never have eaten before. This program changed a whole lot of people in the school, especially me,” he said.
During the school year, the cooking and nutrition component has a classroom where they train students to do peer to peer lessons in cooking from the garden and eating better. They expose students to all the bad stuff they may injest – high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, preservatives – and encourage them to make healthy choices.
UNI is partnered with U Penn and many city programs, including, City Harvest, a program in which prison inmates and volunteer gardeners grow the vegetables from the transplants, and through SHARE, the produce is distributed to food cupboards in Philadelphia. The week we were visiting this project, UNI was busy planning the Rooted in Community Conference – where youth involved in similar projects from all over the country come together to strategize and attend workshops about sustainable agriculture.
The Urban Nutrition Initiative was such an inspiring visit – we certainly see a lot of connections to our work in Washington, D.C. – and we hope to reconnect in the future.
Mill Creek Farm
Collectively founded in 2005 by Johanna Rosen and Jade Walker, The Mill Creek Farm was a highlight among our visits since we had time to share food and conversation with both cofounders. Their broader mission is to use the storm water management site as an urban farm educational facility that promotes local access to fresh and affordable food in the West Philadelphia neighborhood.
The MCF also acts as a demonstration site for sustainable building methods. They have a compost toilet that was donated to them, with a living/greenroof on top of the cob and clay structured shelter. One can see the dynamic vitality of the two young women matched by the mosaic tiles installed by the summer youth group. They have also experimented with bat boxes and beekeeping which has successfully yielded plenty of local honey.
Johanna and Jade, for us, embodied more than alternative actors to the industrial, corporate food machine; they have also been inspiring women in the fit mission for food justice and equitable access to better living for everyone in the world. As young women, they both have spent years on farms through Massachusetts and Vermont, but have come to the urban to help share their extensive knowledge of food production and change the inequitable food system on a local level. They both shared their struggle with their existence as a non-profit and the difficulties an 501-3c faces in the annual grant dependence scheme. Ideally, they both would like to see the MCF acting as its own self-sustaining site for food production and at a price that benefits those who live by the land and need it most.
Johanna started out working in Philly public school system and with the Urban Nutrition Initiative. She has ten years of farming under her belt and strong connections to urban ag in the city. If Jade isn’t working on promoting a Oaxacan struggles film piece or attending the U.S. Social Forum, she is exploring ways to help connect the neighborhood’s elderly and their rich knowledge with the local youth. Jade succinctly expressed her hope for the farm by loosely quoting bell hooks as stating that oppression stems from a lack of options and we saw how both Jo and Jade’s efforts link exactly with changing the implication of that phrase.
Greengrow Farms, Philadelphia
How do you take a piece of old industrial land and turn it into an actual running urban farm? Mary Seton Corboy and her husband found several ways of doing it and their running urban farm, Greensgrow, has 10 growing seasons of success to prove it! Mary is the Chief Farm Hand of the operation and tells quite the story of how Greensgrow Farm was once a superfund site from an old galvanized steel plant and then converted to a hydroponic lettuce greens producing farm. That was their start….
Greensgrow Farm was started in 1997. At that time they set up a NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) hydroponic system growing lettuce greens for local restaurants. Then 6 years ago they built a green house and started growing flowers to sell to the neighborhood which really changed the relationship they had with the public. As Mary said, “(the neighborhood) didn’t get the little tiny heads of lettuce, they thought we were just really bad growers”, however this perception has now changed with the additions of raised cement beds and green houses that grow flowers, different kinds of beans, eggplants, tomatoes – produce people can identify.
Over the course of several years Greensgrow Farms has changed from selling mostly to restuarants to selling mostly to people. They are a retail operation that has a farm stand that is open 2 days a week and they run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and have 150 members. They use outside farms from mostly Southern New Jersey and they use 30 different producers for the products they sell to their members and at their farm stand. This is the connection that Greensgrow wants to facilitate. Mary told us,
“where ever we feel we can make a connection with food and the people who live in this neighborhood and the people who come to see us – to let them know about the different food things that are going on in Philadelphia and give them the opportunity to support rural growers – who have a certain style of growing that we happen to think is compatible with ours – which is not necessarily organic but is trying to be sustainable and trying to make the best use of their resources”.
In order to make this rural farmer, urban resident connection they have to put some miles on their truck to pick up the produce. So, what’s fueling all those miles? Biodiesel. Yup, the farm also makes their own fuel and they are about to reached their production goal of 600 gallons per week. This fuel will go towards running their produce truck and heaters for their greenhouse. Oh, and did I mention that they also keep bees – “Honey from the Hood” is their brand of honey, unfortuately they lost many of their bees this past year and are wondering if it is part of the colony collapse disorder (CCD) that bees across the nation have been facing. As or right now they are not sure what caused their bee loss.
So, as for new projects the farm will be taking on this coming year, they are going to construct a demonstration kitchen to teach people different ways to cook the yummy vegetables they are picking up in their CSA shares. Greensgrow will also continue with it’s vision, “to be a profitable, urban, green business dedicated to growing the best products, people, and neighborhoods.”. With charismatic leadership and years of experience, Greensgrow knows the realities that non-profits face. Their partly for-profit model may be an example of sustainability for this kind of work.
Philly Orchard Project
The mission of the Philly Orchard Project is “to purchase vacant lots and plant orchards within the city of Philadelphia, in order to provide healthy food free or at low cost, create jobs, stimulate related business, reduce crime, increase summer cooling, make space for beauty and play.” We talked at length with POP’s founder, Paul Glover at Philadelphia’s Buy Fresh Buy Local kick-off party. His ideas about urban ecology led him to create the Ithaca Hours alternative currency in Ithaca, New York and pioneer a cooperative health insurance system there that serves 1,000 people.
Two years ago, he moved to Philadelphia to try and start a similar program, ‘Philahealthia’. In the past year, his passion for urban sustainability led him to look into what to do about Philadelphia’s 40,000 vacant lots. Agriculture, it seemed, would make sense for a city where 600,000 people live below the poverty line.
“We’ve begun organizing to plant orchards – fruit trees, nuts trees and berry bushes throughout the city,” said Glover. “A lot of this is vacant land, a lot of it is privately owned. we are seeking to get ownership or easements on all this land but we’ll take what we can get or just take what is there.”At one time in his life, Paul Glover wrote a novel about rebuilding Los Angeles into a sustainable model city. Much of his literary vision can be found in the descriptions on the Orchard Project website, he says, “Philadelphia will become the ‘next great city’ by rebuilding itself as an American refuge from expensive oil and gas…
Amid these orchards we can construct clusters of supremely energy-efficient earth-sheltered housing, needing one tenth the fossil fuels to warm and cool them. Ecological colonies (ecolonies) grow food on roofs, recycle rainwater and greywater. These neighborhoods would be linked by light rail and bikepaths. Some streets can be reclaimed for gardens and play. Property values would rise and neighborhood businesses bloom.
This vision may take a lot of work. A small number of people are benefiting from the free harvesting of fruits in urban Philadelphia. Most of the work of the POP right now is in locating land for orchards in the city, and looking at other cities such as Austin and Boston that have similar programs. – KS
A Guerrilla Garden in Baltimore
At the intersection of Forest and Chase streets in Baltimore, across the interstate from downtown in a neighborhood called ‘Mid-East’ one vacant block is bursting with greens, among other vegetables, but especially Collards. We visited this un-named an un-owned urban farm one Sunday afternoon when the gardeners were having a cook-out and planning meeting. The number one agenda item: what to do with all the food they’ve been harvesting!
The garden started when Nick and Scott, former art school students, found a big unused space. Instead of asking permission or trying to navigate the Adopt-a-Lot or similar city programs, they simply started tilling the land – and this year is their first harvest. A central presence in the group is Mac, a neighborhood resident with a natural green thumb. He talked at length with us about the joys of having found this garden to tend and be a part of, tomatoes with mayo and pepper, the struggle of living in a literal food dessert – a neighborhood in which there is no grocery store to buy produce. An all too common situation in inner-city Baltimore.
Because the land used to be empty, it was common for people to cut through the middle of it – this was integrated in the garden design and for this reason a big pathway cuts the space in half. Parked in the shade next to one of many boarded-up houses is a handmade trailor, used for cooking demonstrations and various other things. They are just now deciding what to do with all the food – debating whether to give it away and how, or to sell part of it to pay for the upkeep of the garden.
The garden on Forest street is an example of what a group of people can do with limited resources to make a vacant space a productive urban farm. There are big ideas for the space – all of which are being tried without official land ownership or any sort of official ngo status – earthern building, bigger better composting, film screenings in the garden; all of it is an experiment in transforming space and feeding people at the same time.
Pocket Gardens, Baltimore
Pocket Gardens, as described by Peter Babcox its creator, is “one big community garden spread around the neighborhood in small pieces”. Walking around the neighborhood of Remington, in northwest Baltimore, one can find sixty or so of these “public gardens” that stand out as marigolds, perennial sunflowers, daisies, daffodils – all framed by aqua-blue two-by-fours pressed into the earth between the street and the sidewalk.
The philosophy and mission of Pocket Gardens is not only about the beautification of a particular neighborhood, but about the youth of Remington and greater Baltimore City at large. When kids grow up in a neighborhood that looks trashy, said Babcox “they grow up thinking that they’re trashy people”. In his program, a central theme seems to be reinforcing the integrity of local youth, the idea of social witness, and living “our best purposes”. Babcox believes strongly that youth should be paid for their work, and not looked upon for free ‘community service’.
His work with youth started with a career as a kindergarten teacher at a private school in Baltimore. Growing up in rural Ohio, Babcox’s love affair with plants began watching his grandparents raise fruit trees. So, when he retired from teaching he began raising seedlings and looking for something to do with them with youth. He decided upon the Remington neighborhood because he had heard about an Episcopal Church that had a reputation for local social justice outreach. Remington’s proximity to Johns Hopkins University also made it possible to draw on the undergraduate population as volunteers for the Pocket Gardens.
There are some definite challenges that Babcox continues to encounter in Remington. It is a “rough neighborhood” with a reputation for drug-related activity. He described the neighborhood as having “no coherence or community consciousness”, but implied that getting youth in neighborhood beautification is important because people respect their work. To date, not one Pocket Garden has been vandalized.
Babcox’s project started out with support and funds from the Open Society Institute, and has since partnered with several programs, including Youth Works and Greater Homewood, to employ youth to care for the gardens – a significant job that involves hauling watering cans to gardens scattered around many square blocks.
Pocket Gardens is like “painting or sculpting with flowers. And the neighborhood is the horizontal canvass,” said Babcox. He’s also been attempting to do a little bit of guerrilla garden with youth. Last year a number of morning glories were clandestinely placed along a car dealer’s fence with the intent to cultivate the beautiful climbing blue flowers in an otherwise stark, concrete setting. The property owner took them out with a week wacker before they had a chance to bloom. But on the walk around the neighborhood, Babcox pointed out the next chain-link candidate for beautification in Remington.
Citing one of his inspirations as the Shaker religious community of New England, Babcox said that when their farmers discovered hungry people were stealing vegetables from their gardens, instead of building fences or punishing thieves, the Shakers planted more vegetables to be shared by all. The Pocket Gardens discretely plugs away with this image in mind, building beauty and community in a little neighborhood in Baltimore. –KS
Additional Baltimore Resources:
Parks and People is another progressive city-wide program that gives small grants to people to start a garden or clean a park.