Over 15 million households in America experience periodic food insecurity. That means over 12 percent of our population, at any given time, does not have enough food to meet their needs, or is uncertain they will be able to get enough. Continue reading Five food security projects that are helping to revive and sustain communities
Onika Abraham, dubbed one of “Mother Nature’s Daughters,” in a recent New York Times piece on the booming NYC urban agriculture movement, came to Farm School NYC as a teacher, initially. She’d been in food justice circles for some time, and knew a little about the school, about the 20 urban ag courses – ranging from botany to irrigation to animal husbandry to advocacy – that they ran each year. She knew that they hired wonderful farmers to teach those much-needed courses to a socio-economically diverse student body, and that they ran a certificate program for their most committed students.
It made perfect sense that she was pulled in a few years ago, by some of her food justice peers, to co-teach a Farm School core course called “Transformational Leadership”: an intense, retreat-style course that explores the idea of leadership as service, and marks the last time that a particular cohort of certificate students will be together, before they disperse to complete their apprenticeships around the five boroughs, and then spread out to disseminate their newly acquired urban farming expertise.
The surprise for Abraham was that the course transformed her. The students, quite simply, wowed her. She was bowled over – moved by their passion, and by the strong support network they’d formed with each other. She was sold on Farm School NYC; these were, no question, the kinds of people she wanted to work with.
“The people who are drawn to the mission of Farm School—the mission to use agriculture as a means of building communities, self-sustaining communities, communities that address inequities and social-economic and racial injustice—people who respond to that type of mission are some really incredible human beings,”says Abraham, “And that’s what really drew me in.”
So when she learned last year that the director of Farm School was leaving to pursue her lifelong dream and become a farmer, Abraham rushed to apply. “Sometimes we walk by community gardens and we think, ‘oh that looks so beautiful,’ and ‘what a lovely smell,’ and ‘isn’t that better than seeing an empty lot,’” says Abraham. “And those are important benefits of these gardens, but people who see the potential of those spaces as being places to create equitable community as well as wonderful, healthy, affordable food. I think people who are drawn to that really come prepared to work hard.”
She came prepared to work hard, too, which was a good thing, because as fate would have it, Abraham found, just a few months after taking up her new position as director, an enormous challenge sitting on her desk, staring her down. Farm School NYC had hit a rough spot, financially. A very rough spot. The U.S.D.A grant that had sustained Farm School NYC by covering nearly 90% of its budget for the first three years of its life had, to everyone’s shock and dismay, not been renewed in 2014.
The school needed to come up with another way to survive, to move ahead with the 20 courses slated for 2015, to continue to pay their teachers and farmers the same good salary as ever, and to draw up a blueprint for a completely new operating model for years to come. It was an opportunity to create a more financially sustainable business model for the school, to be sure, but a daunting one.
The good news is that that passionate community that drew Abraham in is as alive as ever – as evidenced especially by the army of volunteers who show up to do everything from enter teacher evaluation data to scout out floating classrooms around the five boroughs. After the bad news hit, some of the school’s teachers and farmers even stepped up to declare that they wanted to teach for free, this year. And though the school has had to put its certificate program on hiatus – they don’t want to accept the next class of certificate candidates until a clearer picture of the school’s future is in place – dozens of people not in the certificate program are signing up to take courses on an individual basis this year, and most of those students already on the certificate track have made the decision to keep right on with their courses of study, undeterred.
Meantime, via an emergency ioby campaign (“Save Farm School NYC!”), the school has turned to its own community and to the larger food justice community in an effort to bridge the gap, while it brushes itself off and gets back on its feet. So far, almost $11,000 of the $25,785 goal has been raised, which means that, at the very least, classes will run in 2015.
“We’re operating regardless,” says Abraham, “and we’ve reached the target that’s the absolute bare minimum target in order to operate in 2015, but we still need the funds.”
So, the rest of that $25,000, you ask. Why’s it needed? Abraham explains: “The issue becomes, what is suffering because of the cuts we have to make in order to survive? What would be suffering is really the opportunity for us to build a sustainable model for the school. Farm School has such a committed and passionate community behind it, but that is nothing to take for granted and nothing to deplete, and it’s not a sustainable way to grow the school. So I think what we’re really aiming for by naming the $25,000 target, and exceeding that target hopefully in the next year, is to build the capacity for us to be able to really think through a visioning process that can create a sustainable model for the school, for 2016 and for the years to come. That’s what I mean when I say ‘save farm school.’”
If, on the other hand, fundraising stopped right here, and the school were forced to go absolutely bare bones for 2015 – nothing but the usual 20 classes, and paying teachers – then the longer-term future of the school starts to look shaky.
One of the reasons that it’s so important to save Farm School NYC is that the school truly serves the city. All of the city. “We try really hard to reflect the demographics of New York City, and the five boroughs. We mean that geographically, racially, and socio-economically,” says Abraham. “Part of our mission is to serve those communities that are most impacted by food injustice and other types of injustice in the city, so we work hard to support people in lower income brackets.”
The school calculates tuition on a sliding scale, based on household income, the result of which is that about 50% of their students come in at the most subsidized level, or lowest income bracket. “We’re totally committed to that,” says Abraham. “We feel like people who come from these communities are going to go back to their communities and spread this work.”
As valuable as the actual learning that Farm School graduates take away is the support network they gain. One student in the very first Farm School cohort, Raphael, moved out of the city and up to Ithaca upon graduation, and now runs a goat farm. He’s in his second season; it’s hard work, but he was prepared. “He definitely went in with his eyes open,” says Abraham. “I think that having the education, the foundation and the community of Farm School was helpful for him in establishing himself up there. Having that network to help him find land and finance things I think was really helpful.”
But the staff at Farm School NYC don’t want to be prescriptive about how their graduates go on to put their educations to use. “I really want to see that people are bringing this back to community in some way,” says Abraham. “To me, that’s the most important part of what we’re trying to convey. I think that’s one of the reasons that the first class that students take in Farm School is something called Training of Trainers, and the whole point of it is that we really want to make sure that people understand that we have every expectation that they’re going to be sharing the trainings.”
Making a living in urban ag is a tough row to hoe. No two ways about that. “It’s definitely possible, but it’s hard, as a lot of labors of love are difficult,” says Abraham. All the more reason to save Farm School NYC, and support those who support our urban farmers; it’s some of the best help they get. To donate, and to learn more, click here.
Lastly, if all of this is making you want to dip your own toes into urban ag, here’s a little taste of some of the courses that’ll be on offer (and open to the general public) in 2015:
- Food Justice
- Botany – Taught by a Brooklyn Botanic Garden curator.
- Propagation – everything you ever wanted to know about SEEDS.
- Growing Soils – composting, soil science, microbes, and more.
- Irrigation – you’ll get to build an irrigation system in a community garden.
- Carpentry – Taught by a power-tool-wielding woman! And you’ll leave having built raised growing beds in an NYC community.
Will Smith is no longer the freshest thing to come out of West Philadelphia. Sorry. Had to.
Since 2006, the Mill Creek Farm, founded by Johanna Rosen and Jade Walker, has been providing its local community with fresh, organic produce galore. Located between the major commercial corridors of Market Street and Lancaster Avenue, this formerly vacant lot has since been transformed into a burgeoning farm, teeming with fresh okra, beans, and bees.
The Mill Creek Farm’s existence stemmed from the idea that everyone should have access to local, organic, culturally-relevant food. In an interview with ioby, Johanna Rosen states, “Taking this trashy overgrown lot and turning into something that’s productive for the neighborhood and providing food access where there are limited options is very critical.” The farm is in the midst of a food desert where the option to buy fresh, local, pesticide-free produce is extremely limited, or nonexistent. Walker and Rosen, already experienced in agriculture and education, wanted to extend their knowledge to the surrounding community.
In a short documentary, below, about the Mill Creek Farm, Jade Walker talks about how the farm sprouted to life. She says, “We deserve the option to eat locally and to feed ourselves with food that we culturally want to be eating and that makes sense to us as far as recipes, as far as our family history, and that we also deserve to have the option to have food without pesticides.” And that’s exactly why the two farmstands of Mill Creek Farm offer affordable, below-market prices, and serve as the only ones in the area that accept Farmer’s Market Nutrition coupons and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefits.
Rosen can testify to the excitement of local residents to some of the food made available by the Mill Creek Farm. “Our first year we grew one row of okra and learned very quickly that that was not enough. Now we grow three rows of okra and usually still sell out of it within the first hour of market because it’s in such high demand. I think that just speaks to the fact that people can’t get the fresh produce they want other places…and it’s also really important that we’re providing a quality that people come back for; that it’s picked the same day, that it’s grown without any chemicals.”
While the Mill Creek Farm has faced some challenges in securing the land for permanent use, it serves as a staple to the community for those who volunteer and benefit from the cheap, accessible produce. In The Mill Creek Farm documentary Walker explains, “I don’t think that people come out to our volunteer days and community work days or even just stop by in the neighborhood because everyone wants to grow up and be a farmer…people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It’s an intrinsic human need to be working with other people, and be outside, and be touching the earth, and I think that’s what’s so cool about the farm here.” With that kind of passion driving the volunteers and friends of The Mill Creek Farm, it does not seem that they will be going anywhere anytime soon, at least not without a fight from the people in the community who have benefited from the Mill Creek Farm team and its dedicated and thankful residents.
With its seventh growing season in the works, the Mill Creek Farm is now looking to bring on two new staff members to help out with the prosperous farm, and help bring new ideas to the table. Its project on ioby has successfully raised $1800 and seeks to raise $8535 more. The money raised will also help to run its youth education program, and buy market supplies. With your help they can continue to provide healthy organic vegetables, fruits (and honey!) to local residents of West Philadelphia.