The Power of NYC Community Gardens

One of the most common questions I am asked these days is "Well, what are you going to do now that you're back in New York City"? "What's your plan"? "Are you going back to work"? Unfortunately, I do not have a clear answer to the question and the more I think about what I want to do, the more confused or overwhelmed I feel. That's a different essay at another time. 

One thing I have been trying to do is see what's happening and out there in New York City in the world of food policy and activism. I already knew there was a lot going on, but where did I or where can I fit in? It's frustrating that most of the food conferences are 1-2 all day events that 1) I can't really manage with a toddler at home and 2) Cost around $500-$1000 for a ticket. I was so excited when I saw that the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College offers panels and discussions around food policy that 1) Are only around 90 minutes in the morning and 2) Are free! Sign me up. (disclaimer: I'm not against paying a ticket price for people's time but $500 is too much for someone that is trying to "find her way" in this new area). 

A discussion I attended three weeks ago was around community gardens and how they have and are affecting NYC residents in such a positive way. With panel participants from the NYC Community Garden Coalition, GrowNYC, Green Thumb (part of NYC's garden arm), Green Guerilla and Harlem Grown, it was such an interesting discussion and time to learn more about the importance these public spaces have for everyone. 

I sensed the passion from everyone on the stage, most of whom have worked in this capacity for decades and remember in the 1970s when vacant lots of urban decay were slowly worked by volunteers and with the help of seed bombs from the Green Guerillas, into safer, cleaner and sustainable oasis for neighborhoods. As Lenny Librizzi from GrowNYC said about research that, "Even a tree outside a window has a positive effect on a child." 

If you enjoy being outside, shop at a farmers market, eat vegetables or garden yourself, it's hard to believe that a city could have been so against positive public space (cough cough Rudy Guliani). Especially public space that is bringing people together for one common goal. It's old and young, different ethnicities and men and women, working together to do something for our neighbors. Now, less than a week away from an election where so much hatred has been made acceptable to many, I can't think of a better time to make sure the existing 300-400 NYC community gardens are kept safe (in 2013, one of the largest Coney Island gardens was bulldozed in the wee hours of the morning to make way for private/public $61M amphitheater) so there is still a lot of tension between developments and existing garden space. 

Many will argue that it's for affordable housing but the numbers come to the fact that only 20% of the new housing will be low-income. That's two families when perhaps children from 100 or more families could enjoy, learn and thrive from an easily accessible (unlike rooftop gardens) outdoor space. 

Food literacy is an area I am actively exploring. I'm currently in an online training program run by The Cookbook Project to obtain my Food Literacy Educator Certificate. Tony Hillery, the founder and director of Harlem Grown, discussion points left the biggest impression on me. 

In the richest city in the country, listen to these statistics: 

In Harlem:
-100% of children are on food stamps
-40% of them are homeless or live in shelters
-90% live below the poverty level (which for a family of 4 is $24,300 annual income)
-80% are in single-parent homes
-the schools have ZERO gym, music or arts classes
-these children are eating nearly every meal at school 

When Hillery began to volunteer at a school, he couldn't believe the disparity. When he began to recycle within the school, child after child was genuinely interested in what he was doing. They'd never seen or heard of recycling before but as Hillery said, "kids all want to be a part of something." When he secured the rights to turn the unkempt garden/lot across the street, he saw how engaged the children were in watching something grow. 

Not only were they learning patience by watching the lifecycle of a plan from seed to an actual output they could eat, but Hillery and his volunteers were teaching them about basic vegetables they didn't know the names of (one girl thought tomatoes only came in a can at a grocery store and that they weren't ever actually in the ground first). 

What I love about what Harlem Grown is that they are doing more than just community gardens. They are taking it a step further and education kids and their parents about the food. What it is. How to use it. According to their research, 8/10 times the children are trying something for the first time and liking it. Five years later, they are working with five (I think) schools and helping over 3000 kids per month. Talk about inspiring.  

The biggest takeaway? Kids need to be surrounded by success to be successful and that starts with education. 

You can learn more about Harlem Grown here.