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Farms in Hunts Point? maybe so

Photo by Adam Liebowitz.

In May, teens from ACTION worked in the Bryant Avenue community garden, where they removed weeds to make room for plants from the Pollinator Project. Left to right are Michael Brodie, Tatianna Echevarria and Misra Walker.

UN program will teach teens to grow their own food for fun and maybe profit

By Sarah Grieb

Recently Eri Lugo came across a fallen tree in his neighborhood. He wanted to make the ugly stump look better, so he planted flowers in and around it. “It’s a new experience,” the 16-year-old said. “I’m outside looking at the community to see how I can make it better.”

But Lugo doesn’t plant just to make places look nice. In the past year he’s helped grow enough vegetables to supply 500 lunches to the Soundview high school where he learned about growing plants, flowers and vegetables.

He applies his knowledge at Bissel Gardens, a community garden alongside the subway yard at East 241st Street that hosts a children’s garden and farmers market and grows food for soup kitchens and for sale.

In a concrete city where space and soil are scarce, urban agriculture is gaining a foothold. Now with the help of Lugo’s teacher, The Point Community Development Corporation, in partnership with The Growing Connection, a program developed by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, will be launching its own food-growing program.

One of the main components the teens of the Point’s ACTION program will use is a device called an EarthBox, a container gardening system that needs less water and soil than traditional container or plot gardening, and can produce a higher yield of crops in a smaller space.

The EarthBox—developed to supply impoverished communities where healthy food is scarce, or where environmental conditions, such as lack of water, cause hunger–is used at school and community sites in nine countries, including Ghana, Nicaragua and Senegal, as well as the United States.

Growing Connection participants grow food, conduct horticultural experiments and share their experiences with their counterparts elsewhere via the internet. People who would likely never meet otherwise not only trade gardening tips, but learn about one another’s culture.

“I think it’s a program that kids should go to because it really triggers something,” said Sergio Ramirez, 19, who attends the same school as Lugo and has participated in The Growing Connection. “It makes you think what’s outside the Bronx and New York.”

The coming together of The Point and The Growing Connection is “like destiny or an arranged marriage” said Adam Liebowitz. Liebowitz, who directs the ACTION (Activists Coming To Inform Our Neighborhood) program, said it’s “a perfect fit with everything we’re doing.”

ACTION members are helping to restore native vegetation to North Brother Island in the East River and have planted native seedlings in the Bryant Avenue Community Garden. Now, Liebowitz sees growing food in EarthBoxes as the first step of a plan to start an urban farm.

Mariamu Sillah, 16, didn’t like gardening that much when ACTION’S projects began, but now she thinks it’s great that their programming is expanding. “I didn’t expect myself to look forward to that. But I am. I want to see where it goes and see people actually take charge of their community,” she said.

In the future, Liebowitz hopes The Point’s youth will sell food they’ve grown themselves, while encouraging and educating others to do the same.

“If they grow it, they’ll eat it,” said Stephen Ritz, the New York City director for Urban Farming, an organization whose mission is to “eradicate hunger while increasing diversity, motivating youth and seniors and optimizing the production of unused land for good and alternative energy.”

Ritz, who introduced his students Lugo and Ramirez to gardening, believes it has countless benefits. It makes kids healthier by encouraging more physical activity and better eating habits, and fosters interest in and concern with the world, he says.

“Kids who used to sell crack are now selling cucumbers,” Ritz quips. They sell the food they grow and earn a profit, he said. Some plots at Bissel Gardens are for reserved for that purpose.

“Learning what foods to eat is the gateway to awareness,” said Liebowitz, who criticizes the Hunts Point food markets, noting that healthy, fresh food is hard to find in Hunts Point.

Misra Walker, 17, of ACTION echoes that sentiment. She’s frustrated because sometimes she has to go all the way downtown to buy produce. The Growing Connection, she hopes, will “change people’s diets and promote more agriculture in the community.”

“I want to taste a fresh organic apple,” said Sillah, “I feel like I’ve been robbed of that. I want an organic vegetable.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 2009 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

The Point produced this slideshow about a community gardening project.

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