While ’tis the season to be singing ~ let it snow…let it snow…let it snow, many of the kids in Harlem are singing ~ let it grow….let it grow…let it grow ~ and they’ve been doing this at Harlem Grown since its founding in 2011 by (the amazing) Tony Hillery.
Come along as we take a tour of the program’s new farm on 127th Street between Lenox Avenue and Fifth Avenue in Harlem.
Harlem Grown was developed as a way to teach and inspire kids toward a healthy life. “If they grow it, they will eat it” said Hillery, who now has eleven sites, growing 7,000 pounds of organically grown produce last year, all provided free to the kids and their families in the community. And he would know. His program served over 2,700 children last year – working with a community where most of the children live below the poverty level, many homeless, or from single-parent households with little access to affordable fresh food on a regular basis.
The new farm on 127th Street is well on its way to becoming twice as productive this Spring, featuring a two-story vertical hydroponics green house ~ a true living classroom where Harlem Grown can teach kids how STEM integrates with urban agriculture. No soil. No pesticides. No bugs. It is expected that about 2,000 children will be coming through this new farm in 2019, learning more than just planting, composting and recycling. “Healthy habits start young, which is why the programs target elementary-aged students. Because food justice is more than just providing and distributing food, the Harlem Grown model seeks to positively impact the entire community through mentorship, job training, and partnerships to create sustainable change.” Children from kindergarten through fifth grade seed and cultivate their own plants.
The main farm on 134th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd (118 West 134th Street) was where this all began. The outdoor tiling is made from recycled tires, and a rainwater collection system gathers rainwater captured from a downspout on the adjacent building ~ his model of transforming abandoned lots in Harlem into thriving urban farms, now being replicated at the 127th Street location.
As we stand in the mud on this winter day, we know that this Spring the entire lot will be filled with greenery ~ all planted by the children. Last year, at this very site, 800 pounds of organically grown produce was grown and given away.
Below is the entrance to the two-story structure, where the first level will be used for teaching and other gatherings.
On the second level, rows of vertical hydroponic produce being tended to by volunteers. This is the second of its kind in the world ~ with its sister project in Denmark. The system, made by the company Human Habitats from a shipping container, is entirely off-grid. It collects rainwater for a highly efficient drip-irrigation system, with energy provided by on-site solar panels and battery storage.
The story of how the seed for Harlem Grown was planted was a stunning reality in Harlem, when – as a volunteer in a lunchroom at a Harlem elementary school (PS 175 Henry H. Garnet), a student told Hillery that she thought tomatoes grew in supermarkets! No wonder, since there were 55 fast-food restaurants within a three-block radius of the school ~ mostly processed snacks, ~ fruit and vegetables a rare commodity. Hillery applied to the City to take over an abandoned lot across the street, and started started the urban farming initiative that has since thrived and become Harlem Grown.
Above, we are shown the irrigation system throughout the walls of vertical gardens on the upper level.
Below, Tony Hillery, Founder and Executive Director of Harlem Grown, shows us how the walls to the vertical garden have the ability to slide open in milder weather.
In addition to teaching children about farming and providing free hyper-local food to community members, Harlem Grown leads workshops on food, nutrition and cooking, and provides fair-wage jobs and skills training for local residents who work as mentors, in-school educators or staff. Here, we must mention that Harlem Grown pays above the new, higher minimum wage, and focuses on hiring single mothers for many of their management jobs.
Harlem Grown is an independent, non-profit organization with a host of youth programs and volunteer opportunities. Did you know there is free Yoga held each Saturday in Spring and Summer? We will close with Tony Hillery’s motto ~ ‘Plant healthy vegetables ~ Grow healthy children.’