In 1998, East New York residents came together to address two mounting issues they saw in their community: a lack of fresh, healthy food and stable jobs.
What was born from the collective effort is a more than two-decade strong urban farming system, that provides East New Yorkers with fresh, organic foods, employs residents and trains local youth.
East New York Farms, with its two half-acre farms, is the sole food justice group in the community, Project Director Iyeshima Harris told BK Reader.
"We try to the best that we can to provide access to healthy food, in East New York we have a ton of transportation, but no access to healthy food."
The first farm, the UCC Youth Farm, sits off the corner of New Lots Ave. on Schenck Ave. and is filled with garden beds, a small green house, rows of seedlings, and all the tools, compost food scraps and open air freshness you could hope for.
The second location is at the NYCHA Pink Houses, where vegetables grown in the half-acre lot are distributed for free at weekly fresh food pantries. At both locations, the vegetables are grown organically without the use of pesticides or any sprays.
At the UCC Youth Farm, plants are grown and given away to community members and vegetables are harvested and sold at weekly farmers markets. "We try to make sure everything is affordable, so the least inexpensive things are the greens, which are $2 or $1.50 a bunch," Harris said.
"The most expensive thing we have is garlic because it takes so long to grow and it's a hot commodity," she laughs.
She's not lying — Harris said the team plants the garlic in fall and then has to wait a full nine months until its ready to eat.
"Another thing that was important was that the food we grow needs to be culturally relevant," she said. "Most of our population is from the south, from the Caribbean and East Asia, so we want to make sure we're reflecting that culture as much as possible."
Harris said often that means people come to the last markets of the season and stock up on as much produce as possible to freeze for the winter, because there's nowhere else local to buy it.
The East New York Farms team is made up of nine staff members, and each year the organization takes on 37-40 local youth interns.
"A lot of our operation is youth powered," Harris said, adding the internships encompassed more than just farming, including communication, management and independence skills. Many of the interns come back for multiple years — including some that have stayed on for nine years and ultimately become staff.
"That's the most rewarding part," Harris said. "That's kept me coming back -- providing for my community, providing these experiences for youth, that's something I really find valuable in the work that I do."
For Ayman Bello, who is currently helping to build a new compost site in the farm, it was the fifth year working with East New York Farms. And why does he keep coming back? "I like connecting with the community, helping out and giving back," he said.
Bello is one of organization's main composters; he sees an importance in knowing where your soil comes from and what's it in. He said the same was true for many members of the community, adding the most common vegetables snapped up were tomatoes, Swiss chard and malabar spinach.
If a current fundraiser being held by the organization goes well, Bello's role will greatly increase.
East New York Farms has six days left to raise funds for a new solar powered greenhouse and compost program, which would greatly expand its ability to provide for the community, Harris said.
"In East New York we send a lot of food waste to the landfill and we want it, we want it for backyard gardeners and local gardeners," she said, adding the funds would go towards establishing a holistic community composting program.
"We want to collect food scraps from residents by bike, bring in it here for processing, and then residents can come and pick it up for free."
With the greenhouse, the plan is to expand and extend the farm's growing season. "We give away plants to over 100 people for free, so we don't have the growing space to do that, and we would also love to give away fall crops like garlic."
For Harris, the motivation to keep expanding services is based on her passion for the environment, and her community.
"I grew up in a culture where community matters and communal spaces matter, if I have that means my community has as well," she said. After emigrating to the U.S. as a teen, Harris found herself missing the close knit composition of her community in Jamaica, but found something similar in the urban agriculture community.
"I was granted the opportunity to create and be creative at a young age, and I wanted to create that space for youth after me," she said. She said often youth associated farming with slavery, and she was trying to change that narrative to one of land ownership and empowerment.
Also, she added, the youth interns went on annual camping, apple picking and beach trips, which added extra opportunities for mentorship and learning.
"Those are the experiences that matter for me, they take so much from it and it changes and shapes the way people view agriculture from slavery to something that is bringing value."