Planting Seeds: A Neighborhood Blooms

The act of growing food together and selling it makes people more aware of their health and better eating—Ana Aguirre, United Community Center

On a sunny Saturday morning in July, the East New York Farmers’ Market bustled with activity.  Vibrant music filled the block between New Lots Avenue and Schenck Avenue as community residents participated in a zumba class.  Others thronged the food stalls run by neighbors, choosing from a wide selection of locally grown produce.  Some residents cooled down at the smoothie stand, chatting with friends in anticipation of the cultural entertainment program that was to follow.

This idyllic urban community gathering—the fruit of the innovative work of East New York Farms—take place every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (at the above mentioned location) and on Wednesdays from 3.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. at New Lots Avenue and Georgia Avenue.  A project of the United Community Center (UCC), East New York Farms addresses issues of food justice and economic security by promoting local sustainable agriculture.

In doing so, it has achieved something profound: it has reshaped a neighborhood’s dynamic.  Where once East New York was socially and economically stricken, especially in the 80’s, with public buildings like the library about to close due to the prevalent violence, today it serves as an inspiring model to other areas of the city, signaling what is possible when a revitalized community comes together.

“Food is so basic!  We can live without certain things, but we can’t live without food,” said Ana Aguirre, Executive Director of the United Community Center.  “Food is really the entry point for so many issues that can unify, but also divide a community.  In this case, it has brought a community together.  Food has been an entry point to discussing the inequalities that exist, but it’s also a force by which we’ve built community, through establishing new relationships and by reconnecting different sectors of the community,” she explained.

East New York Farms was born out of a two-year community-planning forum initiated in 1995 by the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development.  United Community Center, along with residents and other local organizations, identified the needs and the resources of the neighborhood.  Amongst their needs, residents listed better access to fresh fruits and vegetables; safe public spaces; jobs for both youth and adults, and more green spaces.

Amongst the resources identified were a large number of vacant lots—over 60 in total—and the dedicated gardeners, who’d converted many of them into gardens, and whose social and professional networks included schools, churches and local associations.  An additional resource was that East New York being a young community district— with one in 3 people under the age of 18—meant that its large youth population had the potential to serve as a catalyst for change.

The East New York Farms project aimed to cultivate these identified resources in order to meet the urgent needs of the neighborhood.  To this end, over the last 16 years, it has created and developed a youth program, an extensive gardener support program and a community educator program that does outreach.  In addition, it runs 3 of its own farms and 2 farmers’ markets.  All of these efforts combined have reinvigorated the very foundation of East New York.

“East New York is a geographically spread out community, making it hard for many people to access some of the substantial grocery stores,” explained David Vigil, Project Director of East New York Farms, “so where people end up shopping are corner stores which aren’t well-stocked with fresh and healthy foods.  It’s a community where poverty levels are high and most people have some form of government assistance.  It’s also a place where diet-related diseases are a lot more common,” he said.

“We’re trying to make sure that everyone here has access to the same quality of foods as they do in others parts of the city, or even better.  And we’re doing that by growing our own and using our East New York Market to attract farmers from upstate to sell at our market, because recognizing that although we have enough space to grow, we can’t grow enough food for all 180,000 residents!” Vigil declared.

Indeed, stepping off the 3 train, visitors are immediately struck by the number of gardens and lots in the neighborhood.  While in the 90’s, several of the lots were about to be auctioned off for development, today gardening is a popular activity in East New York, accounting for the neighborhood’s lush green spaces.  Schools in the neighborhood are growing food in their gardens, as are the NYCHA housing developments.  The farm sites run by East New York Farms are, in fact, at near capacity and newcomers are being encouraged to join other gardens.

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“One thing that’s a struggle is keeping all 16 gardens well-maintained with a high level of involvement.  Many of the residents who started the gardens are ageing.  We encourage new gardeners to invest and reinvigorate these spaces.  It’s as gardens get neglected that the city and developments view them as underutilized and not the best use of space,” said Vigil.

Each year, East NY Farms hires 33 local youth for a nine-month long paid internship, training them in all aspects of farm work, from planting seeds to harvesting and selling at the market.  The youth are sent to work in gardens throughout the neighborhood, helping other gardeners, especially seniors, to do some of the work they are unable to on their own.  The young gardeners also participate in social and food justice workshops, taught by alumnae of the internship program.  Using food as an entry point, students learn about land use and environmentalism, economic issues in East New York and the world, and discuss issues such as racism.  In total, 200 people are actively involved with East New York Farms, including vendors, educators and 40 to 50 regular gardeners.  The project serves an additional 100 gardeners each year, in some capacity, from workshops, to buying seeds or selling at the market.

“We’re using food to build community, but that process impacts economic security and increases jobs, too,” pointed out Vigil.  “I think East New York Farms has been a successful and long-running project because there are many different ways in which people can get involved.  Some people want to grow food for themselves and their neighbors; entrepreneurs want to sell at the market; there are young people looking for jobs and volunteer opportunities.  Everybody has to eat and everybody has to share that food culture in some capacity or another.  It’s really this diversity that’s interesting, and which gives our project momentum and visibility,” he said.

The work of East New York Farms has enabled a communal atmosphere by building dynamic new relationships.  For instance, young people raising farm beds together with seniors, and selling in partnership with them at the market, has not only strengthened intergenerational relationships, but it has also meant that both populations are actively engaged with and impacting the community.  The Saturday market, too, has created a social space where people want to spend time while food shopping.

“This kind of project helps a community build itself up organically without having to rely on outside sources,” declared Rachel Bishop, Development Director of East New York Farms, who loves growing peppers on the farm.  “In American cities, food culture often leads to a sense of disconnectedness and lack of community.  But food is so important in terms of how people interact with each other and with their bodies and the environment—it’s kind of fundamental!  The way we eat can really be the fabric of the community. ”

photo 4-2The agricultural drive in the neighborhood can be attributed to the large population of immigrants, many of whom come from farming backgrounds.  “We use the farm to celebrate the agricultural diversity of the world and this community, and as a way to see what best will grow here, what varieties are more popular” said Aguirre.  The farm sites, which are half an acre each in size, boast 40 different types of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers, with over a 100 varieties.  Crops include callaloo, dasheen, Scotch Bonnet peppers, Swiss chard, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, bok choy, garlic and hot peppers, amongst a host of others.  According to Vigil, what makes East New York feel like a farm town is that people enthusiastically bring him seeds they’ve procured from overseas, or saved from a pepper bought at a store!

Aguirre hopes that the East New York Project will make a large impact on young people.  School children who come to tour learn about the water collecting system and greenhouse, see the honeybees, visit the compost site and try some of the crops.  This year, East New York Farms began a food-growing partnership with the NYCHA Pink Houses, an alliance that harks back to the origins of the United Community Center, founded in the 50’s by women tenants who were seeking integrated after-school programs for their children.

“Anytime you’re working for social change, the hope is that you’re not just scraping it together out of your own sweat, grant money and donations.  But, rather, that you’re creating long lasting change,” said Aguirre.  Funding from the NYWF has helped expand East New York Farm’s impact on the community via its training of trainers program for interested residents.  Today, many of their workshops are run not by staff members but summer gardeners, youth alumni and retired women who want to serve the neighborhood.

“What’s interesting about our project is that we’re not just providing a service and people are receiving a service,” said Vigil.  “All our youth, gardeners and educators are, in turn, providing a larger service to the community.  So, it blurs the line between receiving a service and serving.  I see those 200 people as doing the work of East New York Farms and then serving the thousands who shop at our market, attend our workshops and cooking demonstrations and garden all over East New York.”

This article was prepared by Humera Afridi on behalf of the The New York Women’s Foundation.

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