A grapevine hangs over the front fence and trellised entryway at Harlem Grown’s 134th Street farm, where—on an early autumn Thursday—a group of 19 kindergartners split into three groups to explore the quarter-acre plot. Some go to investigate the 38 garden beds, where everything from basil to ground cherries to radishes are grown; others to the chicken coop; and the final handful to the composting operation.
It’s an amazing sight that defies expectations about America’s largest and most densely populated city. Just a few years ago it didn’t exist.
Riverdale resident Tony Hillery started Harlem Grown in 2011, when he was volunteering in the lunchroom of the Harlem elementary school PS 175 Henry H. Garnet. When one student told him she thought tomatoes grew in supermarkets, he realized children in the neighborhood, like many NYC kids, were ludicrously disconnected from the source of their food. And when more closely surveying the area, he saw that Harlem was a fresh-food desert. In the three-block radius around the school, there were 55 fast-food restaurants and 29 pharmacies with packaged, processed snacks, but virtually nowhere to buy fruits or vegetables. The inaccessibility of fresh food was complicated by the economic situation of many children attending the school: a majority of its families are on food stamps, and at least half live in shelters.
Hillery knew that the community needed the physical and emotional nourishment that a farm could offer. So he applied to the City to take over an abandoned lot across from PS 175 and started an urban farming initiative that has evolved into the organization Harlem Grown. Since Hillery was a self-described “Google gardener” when he started, he worried that the children might dismiss him when they noticed he didn’t know the answers to their farm questions. “I just accepted that I’m the king of ‘I don’t know,’” says Hillery. “It’s a strength because it becomes mutual discovery, and we’re learning at the same time.”
As of November, the organization had grown almost 6,000 pounds of produce this year on multiple sites in the neighborhood. The farms harvested okra, kale, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, ground cherries, squash, eggplant, collards, Swiss chard, 10 varieties of lettuces and a dozen herbs including dill, lemon balm and mint, not to mention more than 1,000 fresh eggs. Anyone can help on the farm during regular volunteering hours on Saturdays from mid-April through October, and visitors are welcome to wander into the green spaces during daytimes when staff members are present and the farm gates are open.
Hillery has a mantra: “If a child plants it, they will eat it.” To that end, Harlem Grown arranges for its kindergarten through fifth grade students, who are mostly black and Latino, to seed and cultivate their own plants.
NYC has long been an innovator in the urban farming movement. There is an ever-increasing number of agricultural sites all over the five boroughs: on Brooklyn rooftops and the grounds of Governors Island, in Bronx city lots and Queens community gardens, and beyond. These spaces offer significant environmental benefits: decreased stormwater runoff, cleaner air, cooler temperatures, energy savings, reduced food miles and composting activities that prevent greenhouse gas emissions. This year alone, Harlem Grown has composted more than 16,500 pounds of food scraps.
A low-impact ethos permeates Harlem Grown’s garden design at the 134th Street location: the outdoor tiling is made from recycled tires, and a rainwater collection system gathers rainwater captured from a downspout on the adjacent building. The organization fosters urban sustainability in the holistic sense of the triple bottom line.
In addition to teaching kids about farming and providing free hyper-local food to community members, Harlem Grown leads workshops on food, nutrition and cooking, and provides fair-wage jobs and skills training for local residents who work as mentors, in-school educators or staff.
Mentors, present in cafeterias during lunch and sometimes breakfast, serve as role models for students—many of whom are in single-parent households and do not have a consistent adult presence in their lives. They lead “green teams,” which teach children to compost, recycle and help with the garden space.
The kids’ involvement at Harlem Grown helps them to develop meaningful, supportive relationships. “We in society have this obscene notion when we talk about children that every kid is starting from the same place,” says Hillery. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Half of the kids here are living in homelessness. In my household, you had Mom and Dad, and I never missed a meal. This whole idea developed from the notion that any child regardless of their situation could succeed when given equal access and opportunity.”
In October 2018, Harlem Grown opened its 11th site: the “Impact Farm.” The location is home to a two-story indoor vertical farm that is only the second of its kind in the world. The system, made by the company Human Habitat from a shipping container, is entirely off-grid; it collects rainwater for a highly efficient drip-irrigation system, with energy provided by on-site solar panels and battery storage.
Harlem Grown organizes student field trips and classes in yoga, creative writing and crocheting. Volunteer workdays with corporate partners, which include companies like Juice Generation, White & Case and PwC, can be eye-opening for students: “When we do field trips to their offices, [the kids] see people who get their hands dirty with them on Saturday, and they’re in their offices in nice outfits and suits and ties,” says Hillery. “That’s when something clicks.”
Individuals and companies interested in service projects can find out more on Harlem Grown’s site.