Imagine the concrete jungle recast as a place where farms sit next to tenements and empty lots become oases of flower plots, fruit trees, and vegetable patches. It seems far-fetched, I know, but if members of the Brooklyn Food Coalition (BFC), a loose network of community groups from 11 diverse neighborhoods, are successful, this pipe dream will become reality.
The Coalition’s goal—transforming the food system to promote the health of both consumers and producers—has gained a great deal of traction in recent months and few can deny the magnitude of the current crisis. In Brooklyn and many other urban areas, scores of people are obese, yet malnourished; heart disease and diabetes have reached epidemic levels; and for the first time in decades, children of color have a lower life expectancy than their elders.
On top of this, a report commissioned by the Washington, DC-based Food Research and Action Center, released in January, found that seven of New York City’s 13 Congressional districts are facing severe food hardship. In Congressman Ed Towns’s Central Brooklyn district, for example, 30.8 percent of residents are deemed “food insecure,” which is government-speak for hungry. These folks, many of them employed full-time, rely on soup kitchens and food pantries to feed themselves and their kids. And it’s not just Central Brooklyn that’s feeling the pinch. Throughout Crown Heights, Flatbush, Sunset Park, and Williamsburg, thousands are food insecure.
But what if they, as well as their neighbors, grew food themselves? What if schools offered meals to all 860,000 enrolled students 365 days a year, instead of solely on class days? What if the 10,000 acres of unused land scattered throughout the city were used to cultivate everything from figs to tomatoes, corn to zucchini?
Members of the Brooklyn Food Coalition see these questions as starting points, and their fantasies include a wide array of what-ifs. What if students learned to care for animals, till dirt, tend seedlings, and nurture crops as part of primary and secondary schooling? What if every neighborhood had a farmer’s market where locally grown, in-season goods were sold? What if composting fallen leaves was mandatory and the compost was distributed, free of charge, to gardeners?
Yes, what if…
Rev. Robert Ennis Jackson, the co-founder of the Brooklyn Rescue Mission in Bedford-Stuyvesant, is a visionary thinker who began farming two 100-by-25-foot lots in 2004. “Central Brooklyn has very high rates of diabetes, strokes, and heart disease,” he begins. “The death rate for infants is higher than in wealthier districts. Doctors tell us that we need access to greens and fresh produce, that people shouldn’t be eating canned food or products that are processed to increase their shelf life.”
Jackson sounds exasperated, but only for a moment, as he then quickly switches gears to crow about the Mission’s work. He is extremely proud that he and his colleagues grow and distribute thousands of pounds of food each year. “Once our pantry guests get access to fresh food, they ask for it,” he says. “They want healthy fruits and vegetables and want to learn how to cook them.” In fact, the Mission makes this a priority, and each week 12-15 adults attend cooking classes taught by chefs recruited by NYC Harvest.
“Food is part of a bigger conversation,” Jackson adds. “We understand that obtaining high quality food is about defeating poverty and increasing access to jobs, education, and other opportunities. You can’t have people eating a good level of food without a certain level of means. People are struggling, but all of us at the Mission are excited about the Brooklyn Food Coalition and the ability to give young people a chance to look at, and work on, social change. Food is a starting point.”
Nancy Romer, BFC’s unpaid General Coordinator, wholeheartedly agrees. “We all have an intense relationship to food,” she says. “Absolutely everyone has a relationship to it.”
Romer’s activism began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the late 1960s. She has since been involved in numerous leftist movements—anti-war, feminist, international solidarity, and rank-and-file union efforts, among them. A psychology professor at Brooklyn College, her interest in food was triggered during a 2007 sabbatical. Visits to Bolivia, Mexico, and Venezuela got her thinking, she says, about the centrality of food to struggles over land distribution and resources.
“Control of food is core to movements in the Global South,” she continues. “The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and transnational corporations undercut farming in this region. As a result, food growers are drawn off the land and then become dependant on these same transnational corporations to feed themselves and their families. They end up in poverty-stricken areas; some inevitably migrate to the Global North looking for work. It’s a horrible cycle.”
Romer knew this before her travels, but seeing it first-hand pushed her to ask herself how U.S. residents can make a dent in changing the pattern. In short order, she began questioning members of the Park Slope Food Coop about ways to build on work already being done by disparate food justice groups throughout the city. By January 2009 other coop members joined Romer, all of them committed to organizing a one-day conference that would merge hands-on information about gardening with theories about hunger, food production and distribution, and improved nutrition. As planning for The Brooklyn Food Conference got underway, interest surged; more than 3,000 people from every corner of the borough attended a confab last May, participating in workshops, hearing lectures, and trading experiences with friends and strangers.
But what to do with this groundswell?
Enter the Brooklyn Food Coalition, launched last July by conference planners and participants. Each member group determines its own agenda, but delegates meet monthly to debate, discuss, and plan coordinated activities. Current projects include pushing for passage of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act and promoting increased production of organic wheat in New York State.
Jessica Walker Beaumont is a member of the newly formed Sunset Park BFC Neighborhood Group. Herself a backyard farmer—her 20-by-four foot garden produces chard, cucumbers, lemongrass, lettuce, tomatoes, and zucchini—she says that the Sunset Park organization’s first project will be to conduct an informal survey. “We want to know who in the area is growing food, who they’re feeding, and what tips they’d like to share with their neighbors,” she says. “You can’t see people’s backyards in Brooklyn. Over the next few months we hope to uncover who’s growing what and how many gardens there are.” While the study won’t be comprehensive, group members expect it to give them a sense of the magnitude of neighborhood farming. The group is also working with Friends of Sunset Park to establish a large farmers’ market in the community.
“I love that the work I do in BFC is grounded in my neighborhood,” Beaumont adds. “It involves creative ways to uplift access to healthy food. For me, it’s mostly about vertical gardening, growing things that can go up a trellis, but I’m eager to get tips from my neighbors and hear their stories.”
Beaumont exudes enthusiasm, a spirit evident in the multitude of projects blossoming across the borough. The High School for Public Service in Crown Heights, for one, will begin farming an acre of Kingston Avenue later this month. In addition, educators plan to teach students to raise chickens and expect to begin selling fresh eggs in the not-too-distant future. A Bay Ridge food coop is in the planning stages and people from Brownsville to East New York, Prospect Heights to Windsor Terrace are clearing and planting vacant lots, putting seeds in window boxes, and developing farmer’s markets. Some Brooklynites are lobbying to make bee-keeping legal; others are pushing for improved food quality in public schools; still others are fighting supermarket closures.
And then there’s CropMob NYC, a group for the “ag curious.” Its vision? To bring “groups of people to farms around the metro area to help them for a few hours with whatever tasks are in front of them.”
Sticking our hands in the mud flies in the face of urban stereotypes, which may explain why DIY gardening is catching on. Or maybe it’s the economy, and the desire to eat well while spending less. Regardless, Nancy Romer, Rev. Robert Jackson, Jessica Walker Beaumont and other BFC activists want to underscore the fun they’re having. “Organizing gives people who do it a lot of joy,” Romer says. And so do happy and healthy stomachs.
The Brooklyn Rescue Mission distributes healthy produce and other foodstuffs to Bedford Stuyvesant's senior citizens every Tuesday afternoon. The Brooklyn Rescue Mission is a grass roots organization devoted to distributing and growing local, organic food to the community while raising awareness about its importance. For more about the Brooklyn Food Coalition, go to: Brooklyn Food Coalition .