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GROWING IN THE CITY: NRCS ASSISTANCE FOR URBAN FARMERS

Small community gardens, urban farms that span several city blocks, and intensive indoor hydroponic or aquaculture facilities are all examples of urban agriculture. This fast-growing phenomenon has the potential to nourish the health and social fabric of communities and create economic opportunities for farmers and neighborhoods. But it also comes with a unique set of challenges and opportunities.

Check out this BASIC LEXICON of key terms and principles that explain the benefits of Urban Farming.

THERE WERE OVER 15,000 VACANT LOTS IN NEW YORK CITY. WHAT DID KAREN WASHINGTON DO ABOUT ONE IN HER BRONX NEIGHBORHOOD? SHE BUILT A COMMUNITY GARDEN.

In 1998, Karen Washington began planting trees and flowers in a vacant lot across the street from her home. Nearly 30 years later, the “Garden of Happiness” has both beautified and created a sense of hope for her neighborhood. The garden also strengthens community’s rich culture by letting members grow seasonal foods from their home countries that reflect their culinary traditions.

“We’re bringing urban farming to the forefront so people understand you can grow food in urban areas and inner cities. Growing food here gives you power. You know exactly why, where and how it grew. ”


KAREN WASHINGTON
Urban Farmer
Garden of Happiness
The Bronx, NY

URBAN AGRICULTURE

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service provides technical and financial assistance for urban farmers. Visit your local NRCS office to develop a conservation plan and learn about NRCS assistance with high tunnels, irrigation, soil health, cover crops, pest management, pollinators and more.

COMMUNITY GARDEN

“When you’re growing food here in the community garden, you’re nourishing not only your body, but your family and community.” – Karen Washington.

FOOD JUSTICE

Communities everywhere enacting their right to grow, distribute, and consume nutritious, fresh, affordable and culturally-appropriate food regardless of race, class, gender, nationality or religion.

THE “GARDEN OF HAPPINESS” STORY

(as told by Karen Washington)

“Welcome to my world, the ‘Garden of Happiness.’ It’s one of 600 community gardens in the city, and one of 130 community gardens in the Bronx. We call this a ‘garden of happiness’ because when you walk in, you feel happy and when you leave you feel happy. This garden was started back in 1988. It was one of 15,000 vacant lots in New York City. Can you imagine 15,000 vacant lots in New York City mostly in low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color?

”I moved to the Bronx back in 1985. I didn’t have a picket fence but I had my American Dream. Then a developer building homes across the street hit bedrock so he left it as an empty lot. My American Dream quickly became my American nightmare. An empty lot invites abandoned cars, garbage, prostitution, drug activities. So for three years, from 1985 to 1988, the lot was abandoned. One day I saw a man out my kitchen window. His name was Jose Lugo. He had a shovel and a pick, and I came out of my house and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He wanted to start a garden, so I said, ‘Can I help?’ At the same time the New York Botanical Garden was just starting a program called Bronx Green-Up. This was their first project. And this community garden, the ‘Garden of Happiness ‘with 36 garden plots, is still going strong.

“Here at the community garden you certainly learn the connection between food and health. This area is what they call a ‘food desert.’ I hate to use that term. I would rather use ‘hunger and poverty’ or ‘food apartheid.’ You can’t go to a corner store or a supermarket and get food that you would normally see in other communities, so growing food here gives you power. It’s powerful to grow your own food because you know exactly why you grow it. You grow it for yourself. You grow it for your family. And you grow it for your community.

“Urban agriculture has so many nuances but it’s really the ability to grow food in an urban setting, in the inner city, taking something from nothing. During World War I and World War II, we had victory gardens. As a matter of fact, one of the oldest community gardens in New York City is the Clinton Garden that was built back in the late 1800’s. Now people talk about urban areas and the fact that people may be poor, and there are different ethnicities, but one thing is that everybody had a grandparent or great grandparent who knew how to grow food. So we’re bringing back the culture and traditions that have been the mainstay of the American experience.”

WHEN TRICYCLE GARDENS DISCOVERED THAT RESIDENTS OF RICHMOND, VIRGINIA’S EAST END HAD NO OPTIONS FOR FRESH, NUTRITIOUS FOOD, THEY GREW RVA’S URBAN FARM, THEN DISTRIBUTED THE FOOD TO LOCAL CORNER STORES.

Richmond’s East End, a documented food desert, has the highest chronic disease rate in the region,. With no full-service grocery stores within a three mile radius, residents here struggle with high levels of food insecurity. They rely on convenience stores that sell expensive snacks and processed food with little nutritional value, which is responsible for significant health challenges that include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. In fact, the life expectancy is almost 20 years less than elsewhere in Richmond.

“We’re changing eating habits, one meal at a time.”


SEQUOIA ROSS
Program Manager, Corner Store Initiative
Tricycle Gardens
Richmond, VA

Creating direct distribution models that bring healthier food options to residents in regions that traditionally lack access to locally grown seasonal fruits and vegetables.

An area where residents have plenty of food options (but they’re not healthy).

An area where residents have little or no options for healthy food.

CONVERSATION WITH SALLY SCHWITTERS
Executive Director, Tricycle Gardens

WHY ARE URBAN FARMS IMPORTANT?

With more and more of people moving to cities, we’ve become disconnected from how our food is grown and where it comes from, disconnected from the basic process of putting a seed into healthy soil, then letting it feed us. We love making that connection for people. They’re truly hungry for it, not only for the food, but for the process. A miracle happens when you put a dark, tiny seed into the soil.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO DISTRIBUTE FOOD TO CORNER STORES?

All of us should have the right to healthy, locally grown food but our city struggles with food access. We had the crazy idea to bring the food we grow on our urban farms to the corner markets and neighborhoods where people don’t have grocery stores. Corner stores are what most folks here have access to. They’re a place where traditionally you can buy beer or cigarettes or potato chips. We wanted to expand that and bring in healthy food, so we made a link with storeowners and let them know this could be a new part of their business model. Then we went out into the community and asked, “If you had access to produce, what would you want to see?” Now we make weekly deliveries of our fresh produce. People can walk there or drive so we don’t have to step over cultural barriers or try to figure out transportation for folks. Then we said, “If you haven’t had access to this healthy food before, you might not know how to prepare it.” So we’ve included tastings and created recipes that rely on ingredients you can find right in the store. We really try to instill a love of cooking and convey the ease of using this produce and getting it into families’ bodies all over the city.

HOW DID THE NEW CORNER STORE CONCEPT BEGIN?

We took a map that the USDA put together showing food deserts in our cities, then we said, ‘Where do we have corner stores that accept SNAP so that we can help folks with extending their budget?’ Then we simply went and reached out to these stores with our idea.

ARE LIVES CHANGED BY WHAT YOU ARE DOING?

There are incredible things that happen in an instant, but it’s a long process. We work with children here in town and we’re planting seeds of opportunity … a love of gardening. They could eventually become farmers. At our tastings in the store someone may say “No” at first. Then they go ahead and try it and they’re delighted. “It actually tastes good and I can prepare this in 15 minutes?!’ Simple things can change people’s lives and it happens every day.

TRICYCLE AND NRCS

Tricycle has an incredible relationship with NRCS and it makes good sense, in that we are sustainable builders of soil and farmers and so is NRCS. For us to come together and celebrate what can happen right in our urban neighborhoods is powerful. We hope to inspire not just folks living here in Richmond, Virginia, but across the country, so they know we really can change our food system.

 

HOW TRICYCLE GARDENS COMBATS FOOD SWAMPS

I. GROW

They established an urban farm to provide their community with food security.

II. CONVINCE THE MANAGER

They incentivized the manager of their corner store to make space (and refridgerators) available for fresh local produce grown at their farm.

III. DISTRIBUTE

They developed a distribution system using trucks and drivers to provide the corner store with produce year-around.

IV. EDUCATE

They established tasting tables and conducted in-store cooking demos to show customers how easy it is to cook nutritious, locally-grown food.

V. CHANGE (HER) HEALTH OUTCOME

They did their part to shift consumer behavior and create positive health outcomes like reduced rates of Type 2 diabetes, obesity, & hypertension.

BEFORE PLANTING THEIR CROPS, URBAN FARMERS FIRST ASK SOIL SCIENTISTS LIKE RICHARD SHAW OF NRCS WHETHER HEAVY METALS LIKE LEAD AND ARSENIC LURK IN THEIR SOILS.

Richard has conducted soil survey activities for the Natural Resource Conservation Service in New Jersey & New York since 1996. His assistance includes compiling soil maps, training sessions, workshops, and lectures, conducting onsite investigations on nearly one hundred urban farms, community and school gardens in the New York metropolitan area. He also does occasional “soil shops” in selected neighborhoods to test soils for gardeners, homeowners and concerned residents.

“Soil is a living body capable of providing many valuable ecosystems services. There’s a lack of respect for the soil, especially in urban environments. People think it’s a waste receptacle.”


RICHARD SHAW
USDA/NRCS
Soil Scientist
New York and New Jersey

A scientist who studies soils in urban areas, with a focus on green infrastructure and stormwater management, ecological restoration, community gardens and urban agriculture, open space inventory and site suitability.

A process used to treat soils contaminated by heavy metals or other pollutants by removing and converting them into less harmful products.