Planting Seeds of Opportunity

Harlem Grown Works to Improve Community’s Wellbeing

By Sara Samora and Zein Jardaneh

Harlem Grown’s urban farm on 118 W 134th Street, New York, NY— Photo by © Zein Jardaneh

Diabetes and heart disease, two chronic illnesses that can be managed or contained through healthy lifestyles, are some of the top causes of death in Central Harlem. Neighborhood residents complain that only a few affordable healthy food options exist, particularly for those on food stamps. Lack of space also makes it hard to grow fruits and vegetables at home, and often times, people wouldn’t even know how and where to start. Harlem Grown has taken it upon itself to tackle these issues.

Teaching them Young — Harlem Grown

Founded in 2011 by Tony Hillery, Harlem Grown is an independent non-profit organization that aims to inspire kids in Harlem to lead healthy lives, with the awareness that healthy habits start young.

Harlem Grown staff member composting at their urban farm on 118 W 134th Street, New York, NY — Photo by © Sara Samora

Hillery, who left his job in finance in 2010 following the 2008 financial crisis, began to volunteer at P.S. 175 Henry H. Garnet School on 134th and Lennox in Harlem. Interactions with students and parents at the school cafeteria made Hillery aware that the kids had minimal knowledge, if any, about fruits and vegetables. Rebecca Valdez, the volunteer and development coordinator at Harlem Grown, told us about the exact moment that inspired Hillery to take action.

“There was this one day where he had a 20-minute argument with this little girl, because she said tomatoes grow in the supermarket! So Tony started canvassing and asking other students about their knowledge of fruits and vegetables. And for the most part, they could probably recognize carrots and tomatoes and broccoli and everything else was just salad. And they didn’t eat salad.”

And thus, Harlem Grown was born. It works to transform abandoned lots in Harlem into urban farms. The farms are then used as platforms to educate youth on urban farming, sustainability and nutrition. The first such farm was an abandoned lot across from P.S. 175, where we met with individuals from Harlem Grown to learn more about this initiative.

© Zein Jardaneh

Harlem Grown partners with four elementary and two middle schools. Within these schools, Harlem Grown has education coordinators that teach classes, in addition to in-school mentors. Harlem Grown also offers a seven-week summer camp for kids, where they get to plant, harvest and learn how to cook their food.

“And the idea here is that if the child grows the vegetable, they’re going to eat it, because they’re invested in it,” says Valdez.

Growing the Crops and Reaping the Harvest

Crops at the Harlem Grown urban farm on 118 W 134th Street, New York, NY — Photo by © Zein Jardaneh

Relying mostly on qualitative data, Valdez said they are beginning to see the effect of their work. Some benchmarks for success include kids willing to eat foods they wouldn’t eat before, or recognizing new vegetables they wouldn’t have known otherwise, says Valdez.

Opening the gardens after school and over the weekend, according to Valdez, also provided neighborhood kids with a safe space to hang out.

Latonya Assanah, greenhouse manager at Harlem Grown, said the organization and its gardens are like a shield. “When you come into these doors, what’s left outside is left outside. It’s like a whole other world of moving on for better, and moving on with this movement in health and living strong.”

Harlem Grown’s hydroponic greenhouse managed by Lat0nya Assanah — Photo by © Sara Samora
“Harlem Grown is just like the greenhouse — we never close.” — Latonya Assanah

Harlem Grown also brings in professionals to volunteer and interact with the children. Valdez said that when working professionals from places like Apple, Google and TD Bank come in to talk to the children, it exposes them to various careers they had no idea even existed.

“If we don’t bring these executives here they’re not going to have the exposure, they’re not going to know there’s possibility beyond Harlem, and possibilities beyond being LeBron James or Beyoncé.”

Assanah said the organization has opened doors for her daughter, such as visiting the NYU campus. “A lot of kids don’t see what college looks like, or don’t know what it’s like.”

© Sara Samora

Harlem Grown is opening a world of opportunity for the community it serves. Still, they have a long way to go.

“We don’t grow enough produce to feed the Harlem community. I think there’s about 50 households that we regularly distribute to, but its not enough.” — Rebecca Valdez

The team at Harlem Grown is constantly working to expand their reach, but as a not-for-profit that relies heavily on donors and external funding, their hands are often tied.

“We have to have the capacity to expand to new schools,” Valdez said. “We would love to be in more schools, but we’re not there yet.”