The Big Apple's City-Wide Network of UrbanFood Producers
by Kathy Lawrence and Sarah Milstein
While abundantly stocked grocery stores literally spill produce onto the sidewalks in many of New York City's middle-and upper-income neighborhoods, thousands of New Yorkers have difficulty finding fresh, affordable fruit and vegetables near their homes. Thousands more, reliant on the City's 1,000 emergency food centerssoup kitchens, pantries and meal programs-subsist on diets nearly devoid of fresh produce.
While the incidence of hunger is rising, regional capacity to produce food is declining. Development pressure, disproportionate tax systems, market barriers and inadequate transportation options have contributed to the devastation of agriculture in the Northeast. In New York State alone, nearly 20,000 farms and over 1 million acres of farmland have been lost since 1980.
Community gardens could help to address food needs but are hampered by the multiple demands put on them and the ongoing loss of garden space. In New York City, most of the community gardens are located on City property and hold year-to-year leases with the City. Such garden lotsthe cheapest sites on which to buildare increasingly threatened by residential development.
What to Do?
In March of 1996 a number of people gathered at the invitation of Just Food and the Green Guerillas to learn more about the city's community gardens and about the lack of food security in New York City. What emerged was a recognition thatdespite the huge number of urban gardens in the city (over 1,000) and a dozen organizations working to support gardening effortsthere wasn't much urban agriculture or major food production going on. While thousands of gardeners have succeeded in creating lush oases of green space, safe places for communities to meet and children to play, the emphasis is for the most part on ornamentals, shrubs, flowers and small, individual vegetable and herb plots.
Looking at the tremendous and rising needs that could potentiallv be met by huge, untapped resources, we were inspired to host a series of subsequent meetings exploring collective assistance in helping community gardens to play a greater role in creating local food security.
Agreeing on our shared, concrete objectives has been easy. We see our challenge as creating not just one garden with the ability to grow food for its immediate area, but a city-wide network of urban farms that addresses the need for food with the capacity to produce it. We want to:
To accomplish all these goals we tapped the staff and resources of five very different food-related organizations: one each in local food systems (Just Food), community gardening (Green Guerillas), urban agriculture (New Farmers/New Markets- Cooperative Extension-NYC), hunger relief (Food for Survival), and sustainable farming (Northeast Organic Farming Association- NY). So, the first real challenge was working out how to coordinate five disparate groups who'd never worked together.
In any good collaborative project, there is considerable up-front investment in building trust, figuring out the working relationships among partners, matching project goals with the work of each group, and designing the project. Through regular meetings over the past year, and with the generous support of an "impact grant" from Food forAll, The City Farms partners were able to make this investment, which is just now beginning to pay off with concrete work.
For our first exploratory season "in the ground", we decided to work with no more than one pilot garden in each of the five boroughsfocusing on food production for donation to emergency food providers.
The City Farms hoped to boost food production at these gardens through the hands-on training and mentoring provided by regional farmers and the project partners themselves.
Each of the gardeners have been invited to two workshops led by farmers and urban agriculture specialists on such topics as soil fertility, drainage, planting organic, pest management, harvesting, cover cropping, and other aspects of intensive urban agriculture. We've helped the gardens to assess their resources and have developed a number of information sheets, planting and harvest logs. We've collected and analyzed soil samples from each garden soilboth for nutrients and for contaminantsto aid in the development of specific garden plans. The gardens have produced food-some of them quite a lot, and delivered it to nearby food pantries. We've developed relationships with the gardens and gotten to know their needs and abilities better.
Plans And Prospects:
The City Farms partners received a 9-year grant from the USDA Community Food Projects Program. With their support and that of others, we will hire a community organizer to liaise between the gardens and the project partners.
Continuing to learn and work with the pilot gardens, we will add more gardens to the program over the next few seasons and match them with individual organic farmers for at least four on-site mentoring sessions. The City Farms has use of a greenhouse on Staten Island, which will provide ten flats of seedlings to each garden per year, and which will serve as the site for gardener training in greenhouse production and management. Gardeners will also receive support in organizing volunteer days to help with bed preparation, planting, etc., and will be assisted in building a relationship with at least one nearby food pantry or program.
Food providers, including food pantries, soup kitchens and meal programs, will receive the fresh produce grown for them by neighborhood farms. The produce will be augmented by workshops and nutrition education materials that cover storage, preparation and recipes to help kitchens and clients preserve the nutritional value of the fresh foods. Also, clients of the participating emergency food centers will have the opportunity to become involved in the farms and to grow food for themselves and their kitchen or pantry.
In subsequent years, The City Farms will emphasize food production not only for donation, but for income generation as well. Urban farmers will receive assistance in working with emergency food centers that have existing food budgets or with new farmers markets and farmstands, processing centers, restaurants, caterers and cafeterias to develop markets.
As income generation becomes a focus of the project, The City Farms will help community groups already working on food-focused job training and business incubation, connect with local growers to create jobs in food production, processing and marketing. Jobs will also be created through the expansion of existing farmers markets and the creation of new ones.
The City Farms will bring regional farmers to New York City to build relationships with gardeners, food providers and residents of low-income neighborhoods. These relationships will become the basis for longterm urban support of regional farmers through channels (farmers markets, community-supported agriculture groups) that circumvent market barriers, and through sales to emergency food providers or to processing ventures to which the project gives rise.
By working with local leaders, The City Farms will bolster public and political support to save open space for urban farming. By increasing personal involvement in and commitment to neighborhood gardens, it will garner community support for these sites. In demonstrating the value per square foot in terms of food produced, income generated and the low demand on city resources, The City Farms will create garden models that community boards will support.
In sum, The City Farms seeks to address multiple problems and advance regional food security by drawing on and linking locally available natural and human resources. Our hope is that the initial pilot gardens will become demonstration sites and that they will continue to help the project partners refine their knowledge of the elements necessary to create successful urban farms that can effectively distribute food to their neighbors.
We look forward to learning from other urban agriculture projects throughout the country (and beyond!) and to sharing from our experiences.
For more information, contact:
Director of Just Food
212.674.8124. Include the citation below and GEO Newsletter grants permission to copy, use, and distribute this article.
Permission not for commercial or for-profit use.
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