Grow Your Own

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This morning, I opened my eyes to the sun filtering in through my windows and the scent of fresh basil floating towards my nostrils. I stretched my arms, pulled on my robe and hurried outside to my vegetable garden to pluck a few ripe tomatoes for my omelette. Then I woke up.

While this lovely scenario may sound like the stuff that only dreams are made of for urban dwellers, more and more people are demonstrating that we can have it all: an apartment at the nexus of the universe and a vegetable garden growing healthy food and bright flowers. And it benefits us all: at a time when food imports are surging, the typical American meal contains, on average, ingredients from five countries outside the US. The more we are able to support our own needs, the safer our future will be. Organizations across the country, from Garden for the Environment in San Francisco to East New York Farms here in New York, are teaching urban communities how to move towards sustainability.

The process of growing local is nothing new. The Victory Gardens projects that took place during the first and second World Wars helped city folks find their green thumbs in an attempt to reduce dependence on larger farms, which at the time were under great pressure from the war efforts. The Victory Gardens were developed through a collaboration between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Civilian Defense. By 1943, 20 million Victory Gardens were producing 8 million tons of food each year.

In the 1940s, New York was no rural setting. The Empire State Building, completed in 1931, and the Chrysler building, completed in 1930, already stood high in the sky. Still, people made use of postage stamp front yards, rooftops, and public land to contribute to the local gardening initiative. Other cities around the country did the same. San Francisco’s Victory Garden program became so successful that there were over 800 gardens in Golden Gate Park alone, and at least one garden in every city park.

Well, here we are in 2008, and once again we need to find ways to keep our food closer to home. Why? With gas at an all-time high, the farther your food has to travel, the more expensive it will be. Plus, it will be less fresh and might be sprayed with chemicals and preservatives. For example, a tomato that travels 1569 miles on the road (which is average for conventionally grown tomatoes), will be picked while it’s still hard and green. Then, it will be sprayed with a hormone that will help it ripen, even as it sits in a crate in the back of a truck. When tomatoes are grown locally, they can grow and ripen on the vine.

The other key argument for local gardening is the profound psychological and physical benefit of staying in contact with nature. With urban sprawl reaching further and further from the city, New Yorkers have a hard time finding nature at all. Gardening is an interactive way to touch back down with the earth, our source.

One organization, based in San Francisco, decided to take a lesson from its past. Victory Gardens 2008 has taken the intelligence of the Victory Gardens of years past and applied it to current needs. Created by Amy Franceschini,  VG 2008 formed a partnership with an organization called Garden for the Environment. They are currently in the process of installing 15 Victory Gardens in residential backyards in San Francisco.  Ms. Franceschini recently came to New York to discuss the potential of such an endeavor becoming viable here.

I had the opportunity to interview Blair Randall from Garden for the Environment, and he explained the goal of the project. “By providing the materials, knowledge and instruction needed to grow your own food, the Victory Gardens program encourages residents to produce fruits and vegetables locally, thus drastically shortening the distance food typically travels from farm to table (know as “food miles”).” Victory Gardens also strives to increase public dialogue about food security and to improve people’s relationships with their natural environment.

I was intrigued by the success in San Francisco, but skeptical as I researched public farm initiatives here in New York. Then, with the advice of Marcel Van Ooyen of the Council on Environment of New York City, I turned to East New York Farms.

There was a revolution happening in my own backyard. Not only are they taking back the streets; they’re taking back the earth!

East New York Farms has been providing fresh local produce to the neighborhood since 1998. When the project started, there were already a lot of local residents who brought their farming skills from homelands such as the West Indies. So when the Urban Planning department of Pratt Institute decided to examine East New York as a subject for urban renewal, they noted these farming skills as a major asset. It was clear that the neighborhood needed better access to fresh food, green spaces, public gathering areas, and meaningful employment for youths and adults. Local community gardens could provide all of these things.

Back in the 70s and 80s, arson was a major problem in East New York. That left the residents of the community with a remarkable amount of open space. To the credit of those who lived there, they started taking back the land. Now, East New York has 60 community gardens, more than any other neighborhood in New York .   

Since 2005, East New York Farms have provided over 11,800 families with local and organic produce, Caribbean specialties, and pure local honey. Major organic food suppliers have neglected neighborhoods like East New York, and as a result, healthy food is hard to come by. But East New York Farms observes all organic practices. David, a spokesperson for the organization, says that it’s not worth it financially for them to become certified organic, “but we operate on trust. They [the community]see how we grow things, they know we use organic practices, and they can come see themselves. People value that we don’t use pesticides. And they don’t have to pay a heavy tax on certified organic items.”

Just as significantly as the health benefits of growing local and organic, ENYF has created a dynamic community. In the two large community gardens, there are twenty core farmers who now get together for positive reasons on a regular basis. “Now they have a context to engage each other,” David says. “This creates a ripple effect of people who want to get involved in gardening, and it means they are building stronger connections with their neighbors.”

In addition, ENYF has developed an internship program that gets youth involved in the gardens. One of the large gardens is devoted to the interns, who receive a stipend for their work. Suddenly, East New York sounds like the promised land at the end (the WAY end) of the 3 train.

So what to do if East New York feels about as far away as San Francisco? There are community gardening initiatives all over the city. You just have to open your eyes and really look. As David explained, “There are quite a few community gardens in the city that people don’t pay attention to. Just go to the nearest community garden, ask who the coordinator is, and find out how you can contribute.” He goes on to advise, “start small. ENYF started with one person selling extra collards at a folding table. Now we sell $20,000 worth of Brooklyn grown produce alone.” And that’s only a fraction of the $100,000 that the ENYF market grosses each year. That money goes back into the local community, and that food goes onto local tables. With the simple process of growing their own food, communities from coast to coast are proving that rejuvenation begins locally.

By Emily J. Weitz

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