On a sunny spring day, a group of volunteers, educators, and students feed chickens, water and tend to gardens, plant eggplants, and chop up compost. This isn’t taking place on a farm or some rural setting – it’s actually in New York City, on a stretch of “urban farm” called Harlem Grown.
The non-profit, founded by executive director Tony Hillery in 2011, operates 10 facilities across the city, including a hydroponic farm. They provide 680 pounds of fresh produce to their community, work within the public school system, and offer community education on urban farming, sustainability, and healthy eating.
Hillery says before starting Harlem Grown, he volunteered in the public school system and started realizing the scope of challenges within the community.
“We have 14 homeless shelters in a four-block radius and there's 110,000 homeless youth in this city that go to these public schools,” Hillery told Yahoo Finance. “98% of our families are on food stamps. How do you eat healthy? That’s what prompted this project.”
Access to fresh and healthy food choices is a challenge, says Chris Dotson, an intern with Harlem Grown.
“You see a lot of fast-food restaurants, a lot of delis and a lot of liquor stores,” he says about the area. “There's always something that's not healthy for you, so at Harlem Grown, we’re trying to change that.”
Nysialisa Santiago is an educator who partners with Harlem Grown to teach nutrition classes in the school system. She says it’s important for students to be more aware of what they’re eating and where it comes from.
“Growing your own food is probably the most organic way to eat,” Santiago says. “It teaches the kids that you should pay more attention to what’s going into your body and make better choices, especially in places like this where we where we may not have the best resources or the healthiest foods.”
Access to healthy foods is not just a problem in urban areas like Harlem. According to data by the USDA, 23.5 million people live in “food deserts,” or areas where affordable and healthy food is limited or non-existent. Additionally, 12.3% of the U.S. population is under the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau.
Limited access to healthy foods in low-income communities creates a cycle that’s hard to break, Hillery says. “I always equate this to an onion—every time you peel a layer, it's another layer. That's what generational poverty is.”
Hillery says chipping away at these issues takes time, but starts with education.
“There's no silver bullet here—I found eight years ago, you come here with a load of chard and you give it away, no one knows what it is, how to prepare it, or the nutritional value,” he says. “So you have to go deeper and deeper and deeper. And that's how we've gotten to where we are today.”
The composting program has been a successful way to connect what the students learn with their life outside the garden.
“We started composting here eight years ago with one little girl who brought me a half an eggshell,” Hillery says. “Last year, we did 22,000 pounds of food scraps here, and that all comes from the children going home in the community, teaching their parents about healthy habits and sustainability.”
Hillery says over the past eight years, Harlem Grown has done more than just teach the community about the food they’re eating.
“I have a simple tagline here. We plant fruits and vegetables, that’s obvious,” he says. “But we grow healthy children and sustainable communities. That's our crop. So don't let the farming fool you.”