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City Farms: The Big Apple's City-Wide Network of UrbanFood Producers
by Kathy Lawrence and Sarah Milstein

While abundantly stocked grocery stores literally spill produce onto the sidewalks in many of New York City's middle-and upper-income neighborhoods, thousands of New Yorkers have difficulty finding fresh, affordable fruit and vegetables near their homes. Thousands more, reliant on the City's 1,000 emergency food centers—soup kitchens, pantries and meal programs-subsist on diets nearly devoid of fresh produce.

While the incidence of hunger is rising, regional capacity to produce food is declining. Development pressure, disproportionate tax systems, market barriers and inadequate transportation options have contributed to the devastation of agriculture in the Northeast. In New York State alone, nearly 20,000 farms and over 1 million acres of farmland have been lost since 1980.

Community gardens could help to address food needs but are hampered by the multiple demands put on them and the ongoing loss of garden space. In New York City, most of the community gardens are located on City property and hold year-to-year leases with the City. Such garden lots—the cheapest sites on which to build—are increasingly threatened by residential development.

What to Do?

In March of 1996 a number of people gathered at the invitation of Just Food and the Green Guerillas to learn more about the city's community gardens and about the lack of food security in New York City. What emerged was a recognition that—despite the huge number of urban gardens in the city (over 1,000) and a dozen organizations working to support gardening efforts—there wasn't much urban agriculture or major food production going on. While thousands of gardeners have succeeded in creating lush oases of green space, safe places for communities to meet and children to play, the emphasis is for the most part on ornamentals, shrubs, flowers and small, individual vegetable and herb plots.

Looking at the tremendous and rising needs that could potentiallv be met by huge, untapped resources, we were inspired to host a series of subsequent meetings exploring collective assistance in helping community gardens to play a greater role in creating local food security.

And Then?

Agreeing on our shared, concrete objectives has been easy. We see our challenge as creating not just one garden with the ability to grow food for its immediate area, but a city-wide network of urban farms that addresses the need for food with the capacity to produce it. We want to:

  • Improve the availability of fresh food in New York City's low-income neighborhoods by expanding the capacity of urban growers to produce healthful, nutritious food and distribute it to local residents through established food sites;

  • Promote community-based entrepreneurship and economic opportunity through food production, processing and marketing;

  • Strengthen urban markets for farmers by fostering relationships among city residents and regional and local growers; and

  • Build public support for the preservation of open space for food production.

To accomplish all these goals we tapped the staff and resources of five very different food-related organizations: one each in local food systems (Just Food), community gardening (Green Guerillas), urban agriculture (New Farmers/New Markets- Cooperative Extension-NYC), hunger relief (Food for Survival), and sustainable farming (Northeast Organic Farming Association- NY). So, the first real challenge was working out how to coordinate five disparate groups who'd never worked together.

In any good collaborative project, there is considerable up-front investment in building trust, figuring out the working relationships among partners, matching project goals with the work of each group, and designing the project. Through regular meetings over the past year, and with the generous support of an "impact grant" from Food forAll, The City Farms partners were able to make this investment, which is just now beginning to pay off with concrete work.

For our first exploratory season "in the ground", we decided to work with no more than one pilot garden in each of the five boroughs—focusing on food production for donation to emergency food providers.

The City Farms hoped to boost food production at these gardens through the hands-on training and mentoring provided by regional farmers and the project partners themselves.

The Result?

Each of the gardeners have been invited to two workshops led by farmers and urban agriculture specialists on such topics as soil fertility, drainage, planting organic, pest management, harvesting, cover cropping, and other aspects of intensive urban agriculture. We've helped the gardens to assess their resources and have developed a number of information sheets, planting and harvest logs. We've collected and analyzed soil samples from each garden soil—both for nutrients and for contaminants—to aid in the development of specific garden plans. The gardens have produced food-some of them quite a lot, and delivered it to nearby food pantries. We've developed relationships with the gardens and gotten to know their needs and abilities better.
We've also learned some very important lessons.

First—start early.
While planning with the gardens for the 1998 season began this September, planning for the 1997 season didn't get started until April. As any gardener knows once you're into the season it's tough to do anything but forge ahead with what you have at hand. But to produce food, you need to plan your plots, your crops, buy your seeds, know your soils and organize your labor. And all of that takes time.

Second—the best laid plans...
While we had prepared presentations and materials on such topics as working with urban soils, procuring soil and compost, the principles of intensive organic production, the major challenges faced by the gardens were different. One was facing a drought without the support of the city agency that controls the water hydrants. And despite our best efforts to choose gardens with community involvement and volunteers already in place, we found that what hindered all of the gardens from really utilizing the resources we had to offer was lack of consistent labor and oversight. Lastly, we found that the demands of the collaboration among five organizations and gardens in five far-flung boroughs requires a full-time staff person.

Third—roll with the punches and keep going.
Based on these initial experiences (and many more) we will be revising our plans, priorities and scheduling to better fit the strengths and needs of the gardens. Beginning late this fall we'll have an evaluation and planning session with The City Farms partners, gardens, emergency food providers and others to prepare for 1998.

Plans And Prospects:

The City Farms partners received a 9-year grant from the USDA Community Food Projects Program. With their support and that of others, we will hire a community organizer to liaise between the gardens and the project partners.

Continuing to learn and work with the pilot gardens, we will add more gardens to the program over the next few seasons and match them with individual organic farmers for at least four on-site mentoring sessions. The City Farms has use of a greenhouse on Staten Island, which will provide ten flats of seedlings to each garden per year, and which will serve as the site for gardener training in greenhouse production and management. Gardeners will also receive support in organizing volunteer days to help with bed preparation, planting, etc., and will be assisted in building a relationship with at least one nearby food pantry or program.

Food providers, including food pantries, soup kitchens and meal programs, will receive the fresh produce grown for them by neighborhood farms. The produce will be augmented by workshops and nutrition education materials that cover storage, preparation and recipes to help kitchens and clients preserve the nutritional value of the fresh foods. Also, clients of the participating emergency food centers will have the opportunity to become involved in the farms and to grow food for themselves and their kitchen or pantry.

In subsequent years, The City Farms will emphasize food production not only for donation, but for income generation as well. Urban farmers will receive assistance in working with emergency food centers that have existing food budgets or with new farmers markets and farmstands, processing centers, restaurants, caterers and cafeterias to develop markets.

As income generation becomes a focus of the project, The City Farms will help community groups already working on food-focused job training and business incubation, connect with local growers to create jobs in food production, processing and marketing. Jobs will also be created through the expansion of existing farmers markets and the creation of new ones.

The City Farms will bring regional farmers to New York City to build relationships with gardeners, food providers and residents of low-income neighborhoods. These relationships will become the basis for longterm urban support of regional farmers through channels (farmers markets, community-supported agriculture groups) that circumvent market barriers, and through sales to emergency food providers or to processing ventures to which the project gives rise.

By working with local leaders, The City Farms will bolster public and political support to save open space for urban farming. By increasing personal involvement in and commitment to neighborhood gardens, it will garner community support for these sites. In demonstrating the value per square foot in terms of food produced, income generated and the low demand on city resources, The City Farms will create garden models that community boards will support.

In sum, The City Farms seeks to address multiple problems and advance regional food security by drawing on and linking locally available natural and human resources. Our hope is that the initial pilot gardens will become demonstration sites and that they will continue to help the project partners refine their knowledge of the elements necessary to create successful urban farms that can effectively distribute food to their neighbors.

We look forward to learning from other urban agriculture projects throughout the country (and beyond!) and to sharing from our experiences.

For more information, contact:
Kathy Lawrence
Director of Just Food

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