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Project EATS: Growing Community on the Concrete of Brownsville

More than an urban farm, Project EATS provides healthy nutrition and workforce training, and fosters community through education, events and art.
Project EATS, BK Reader
Francisco Rosario, one of the longstanding farmers. Photo credit: BK Reader

On the concrete of a former parking lot, embedded in the Marcus Garvey Apartments in Brownsville, sits Project EATS, a community-based urban farm that grows food organically and sustainably for the local community. More than a farm, the site is a hub that provides learning and economic opportunity, and aims to strengthen the bonds among local residents through art and education.

"We are trying to reconnect people through these farms and the programs we offer to, what I believe, is the very essence of all life, which is the ability to use the resources we have to create what we need," explained Linda Goode Bryant, founder and president of The Active Citizen Project, a nonprofit that serves as a catalyst for public activism and social change through art and media, and which sprouted Project EATS and its citywide network of urban farms. "We're growing nutritious, healthy quality food and we're providing it at income-appropriate prices in the neighborhoods where we farm."

Project EATS in Brownsville
Photo credit: BK Reader

Established in 2014, the site at Marcus Garvey apartments was transformed from a bleak concrete lot into a lush, financially viable urban farm. "Not an easy task," remembered Bryant.

With creativity and ingenuity, she and her team transformed the former parking lot into a half-acre farm. Serving the needs of the local community, the farm focuses on salad greens, kale, collards, callaloo and other crops that can grow all season. Twice a week, the farm opens for business, inviting the local community to purchase produce at affordable prices. To keep the farm financially self-sustaining, Project EATS also sells its goods to local restaurants and at farmers markets at slightly higher prices to subsidize the lower charges in their neighborhoods.

Deeply rooted in the community it serves, Project EATS understands its networks of farms as hubs that offer programs and activities for the community to connect, grow and heal. The "Farmacy" initiative, a partnership with the nearby East New York Health + Hospitals medical center where Project EATS operates a 3000 -square-foot farm, aims to introduce residents to healthy food options. There, the farm stand becomes a "Farmacy' where patients can use prescriptions issued by their doctors to fill with organic produce grown right on site.

Project EATS in Brownsville
The Brownsville Farm focuses on salad greens, collards, chard and callaloo. Photo credit: BK Reader

"The top three diseases that are in our society, and in particular in this neighborhood, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease, can be modified by nutritious eating and through physically active living," said Bryant. "We're saying essentially that food is the first medicine."

However, it doesn't stop with the 'Farmacy' farm stand. "This year we're expanding the 'Farmacy' program to include workshops as well as coaching," Bryant added. "We are trying to increase the residents' consumption of nutritious healthy food right here where we grow it. If we don't have a demand here, then what is the purpose of us being here?"

Another way of engaging the community is through job trainings and internships. High school students can join Project PEAS (Project Eats After School) to develop farm skills and to land a job for the summer. Job training is also available to adults, which begins with a six-to-eight-week internship to prepare them for the farm work, and which can be followed by another training period to provide them with more specific skills. 

"Change is hard. Change is just hard because we're comfortable with what we're familiar with," said Bryant."We have to support change because change is difficult."

To make folks comfortable with the possibility of changing food and health habits, Project EATS opened The Free Roots Café, located at the Marcus Garvey site. The cafe offers healthy prepared foods such as soups, salads, sandwiches - including a serving of free root vegetables with each order, hence the name —  and soon juices.

"This is our effort to address the fact that most Americans eat prepared foods. There's not a lot of cooking going on in the house," explained Bryant. "We want folks where we farm to be able to eat vegetarian meals or eat vegetables in some way. And so we need to offer them some prepared foods."

Project EATS in Brownsville
Photo credit: BK Reader

Once the cafe reopens this July, Project EATS will also host a series of community events such as free Saturday breakfasts, or monthly dinners where local chefs from partnering restaurants bring their staff and treat local residents to an exquisite dinner experience. 

Bryant, a filmmaker, artist and activist, was inspired to launch Project EATS during the 2008 global food crisis, realizing "that we should all be able to grow our own food, even if we live on concrete." She believes that art can be a catalyst for social change and has transformative power.

"Art itself has the capacity to change the social and economic conditions where it exists," she explained. "This model, Project EATS, is about me trying to prove that, by creating farms that are hubs where innovation and creativity occur. And that can also happen in terms of community programming." 

Project EATS was recently recognized for its community work with an award from  L+M Development Partners, which owns and operates Marcus Garvey apartments. The real estate company is committed to strengthening and investing in their communities through hiring minority- and women-owned businesses (M/WBE) as well as through forging meaningful partnerships with local organizations such as Project EATS. 

"One of the reasons that Project EATS opened up the farm at Marcus Garvey was to expand the availability of healthy fresh food within the Brownsville neighborhood," said Samantha Franklin, director of Community Investment, L& M Development Partners. "We were impressed by how hard they worked to further extend that by opening up the cafe, by offering free breakfasts on selected Saturdays and by hosting cooking demonstrations so that people were able to see how to make a healthy meal."

Project EATS in Brownsville
Linda Bryant, director and founder of Project EATS, with Francisco Rosario.

For Bryant, it was a pleasant surprise to be recognized for being creative and for being more than a conventional farm. Grants that the organization has received will allow for two new greenhouses to be installed, hence to grow produce year-round and other to keep the farm viable.

"We are not successful until this farm site is completely operated and managed by the residents in this community," said Bryant. "That's why the training programs, hiring folks and really getting people involved are so important. Ideally, within three to five years, we should be able to leave and pass it on. Because our success is not dependency."

Until then, Project EATS will remain busy with growing the farm and expanding its programs. Bryant also wants to go back to her own roots, art, and is developing various creative concepts and projects to implement within the farm space, to complete the transformation process from farm to hub. 

To learn more about Project EATs, its various farms, programs and events go here