Brooklyn Meals Coalition Helps Gardens Develop – The Brooklyn Rail
Think of the concrete jungle as a place where farms sit next to apartment buildings and empty lots become oases with fields of flowers, fruit trees, and vegetable patches. It seems far-fetched, I know, but when members of the Brooklyn Food Coalition (BFC), a loose network of community groups from 11 different neighborhoods, succeed, that pipe dream becomes a reality.
The coalition’s goal – reshaping the food system to promote the health of consumers and producers – has been gaining momentum in recent months, and few can deny the magnitude of the current crisis. In Brooklyn and many other urban areas, many people are obese but malnourished; Heart disease and diabetes have reached epidemic proportions; and for the first time in decades, children of color have a lower life expectancy than their elders.
In addition, a report published in January and commissioned by the Washington, DC-based Food Research and Action Center found that seven of New York City’s 13 congressional districts are facing severe food shortages. For example, in the Central Brooklyn district of Congressman Ed Towns, 30.8 percent of residents are considered “food unsafe,” which the government uses to mean hungry. These people, many of them full-time employees, rely on soup kitchens and pantries to support themselves and their children. And it’s not just Central Brooklyn that is feeling the pressure. There are thousands of food insecurities in Crown Heights, Flatbush, Sunset Park and Williamsburg.
But what if they, like their neighbors, grow their own food? What if schools offered meals to all 860,000 students enrolled 365 days a year instead of just on class days? What if everything from figs to tomatoes, corn to zucchini were grown on the 10,000 hectares of unused land scattered across the city?
Brooklyn Food Coalition members see these questions as starting points, and their fantasies span a wide range of what-ifs. What if elementary and secondary school students learned to look after animals, work dirt, care for saplings, and care for crops? What if every neighborhood had a farmers market selling locally grown, seasonal produce? What if composting of fallen leaves was mandatory and the compost was distributed to gardeners for free?
Yes, what if …
Rev. Robert Ennis Jackson, 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 and stroke and heart disease,” he begins. “The infant death rate is higher than in wealthier counties. Doctors tell us we need access to vegetables and fresh produce, that people shouldn’t eat canned foods or products that are processed to extend their shelf life. “
Jackson sounds upset, but only for a moment when he then quickly shifts gears to scream about the work of the mission. He is very proud that he and his colleagues grow and distribute thousands of kilos of food every year. “As soon as our pantry guests have access to fresh food, they ask for it,” he says. “They want healthy fruits and vegetables and they want to learn how to make them.” In fact, the Mission makes this a priority, and every week 12-15 adults take cooking classes led by chefs recruited by NYC Harvest .
“Eating is part of a bigger conversation,” adds Jackson. “We know that sourcing quality food is about fighting poverty and improving access to jobs, education and other opportunities. You cannot have people who eat good amounts of food without a certain amount of resources. People are struggling, but we at the mission are all excited about the Brooklyn Food Coalition and the opportunity to give young people the opportunity to see and work on social change. Food is a starting point. “
Nancy Romer, unpaid general coordinator of BFC, fully agrees. “We all have an intense relationship with food,” she says. “Absolutely everyone has a relationship with it.”
Romer’s activism began as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s. Since then, she has been involved in numerous left-wing movements – including anti-war, feminism, international solidarity, and simple union efforts. As a psychology professor at Brooklyn College, her interest in food was piqued on a sabbatical in 2007. Visits to Bolivia, Mexico and Venezuela made her think about the central role of food in struggles over land distribution and resources.
“Food control is at the heart of the movement in the Global South,” she continues. “The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and transnational corporations are undermining agriculture in this region. As a result, food farmers are withdrawn from the land and then become dependent on the same transnational corporations to support themselves and their families. You end up in poor areas; some inevitably migrate to the global north in search of work. It’s a terrible cycle. “
Romer knew this before her trip, but when she saw it firsthand, she wondered how U.S. citizens can change the pattern. Shortly thereafter, she began interviewing members of the Park Slope Food Coop on how to build on the work already being done by various food justice groups across the city. In January 2009, more coop members joined Romer, all of whom pledged to organize a one-day conference to bring together practical information about gardening with theories about hunger, food production and distribution, and improved nutrition. As planning for the Brooklyn Food Conference began, interest rose; More than 3,000 people from all corners of the district attended a conference last May, attended workshops, listened to lectures and exchanged experiences with friends and strangers.
But what to do with this fundamental wave?
Join the Brooklyn Food Coalition, founded by meeting planners and attendees last July. Each constituency sets its own agenda, but delegates meet monthly to debate, discuss, and plan coordinated activities. Current projects include pushing for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act to be passed and encouraging increased production of organic wheat in New York State.
Jessica Walker Beaumont is a member of the newly formed Sunset Park BFC Neighborhood Group. A backyard farmer herself – her 20 by four foot garden produces chard, cucumber, lemongrass, lettuce, tomato, and zucchini – she says the Sunset Park organization’s first project will be to conduct an informal survey. “We want to know who grows food in the area, who they feed and what tips they want to share with their neighbors,” she says. “You can’t see people’s backyards in Brooklyn. In the next few months we hope to find out who is growing what and how many gardens there are. ”While the study will not be comprehensive, group members expect to get a feel for the extent of farming in the neighborhood. The group is also working with Friends of Sunset Park to help set up a large farmers market in the community.
“I love that the work I do at BFC is anchored in my neighborhood,” added Beaumont. “It’s about creative ways to improve access to healthy food. For me, it’s mostly about vertical gardening to grow things that can go up a trellis, but I’m excited to get tips from my neighbors and hear their stories. “
Beaumont exudes enthusiasm, a spirit that shows in the multitude of projects that are flourishing in the district. Crown Heights High School for Public Service will begin operating one morning on Kingston Avenue later this month. In addition, the educators plan to teach students how to raise chickens and expect to start selling fresh eggs in the not too distant future. A food coop is being planned in Bay Ridge and people from Brownsville to East New York, Prospect Heights to Windsor Terrace are clearing and planting vacant lots, planting seeds in window boxes and developing farmers markets. Some Brooklyners are campaigning to make beekeeping legal; others urge better food quality in public schools; still others are fighting against the closure of supermarkets.
And then there is CropMob NYC, a group for “ag curious”. His vision? “Bringing groups of people to farms in the metropolitan area to help them for a few hours with all the tasks that lie ahead of them.”
Putting our hands in the mud goes against urban stereotypes, which could explain why DIY gardening matters. Or maybe it’s economy and the desire to eat well while spending less money. Regardless, Nancy Romer, Rev. Robert Jackson, Jessica Walker Beaumont and other BFC activists want to showcase their fun. “Organizing is a lot of fun for the people who do it,” says Romer. And a happy and healthy stomach too.
The Brooklyn Rescue Mission distributes healthy produce and other groceries to the Bedford Stuyvesant seniors every Tuesday afternoon. The Brooklyn Rescue Mission is a grassroots organization dedicated to distributing and growing local organic foods to the community while raising awareness of their importance. For more information on the Brooklyn Food Coalition, visit: Brooklyn Food Coalition.