“I had thought of work as miserable and unbearable
East New York Farms! organizes youth and adults in East New York, Brooklyn, to address food justice by promoting local sustainable agriculture and community-led economic development. We have been working with youth, gardeners, farmers, and entrepreneurs to build a more just and sustainable community since 1998. Together, we are growing food, nurturing leaders, and cultivating community in East New York. East New York Farms! is a project of the United Community Centers, in partnership with local residents.
East New York is a diverse and economically disadvantaged community in the eastern part of Brooklyn. Decades of urban decline and neglect left our community with a huge number of vacant lots, a lack of businesses and services for our large population (nearly 180,000 residents), and a reputation for violent crime and poverty.
In 1995, the Pratt Center for Community Development helped to initiate a series of community opinion forums. Working with local organizations, they asked residents to identify both needs and existing resources in East New York. Needs they mentioned included more safe public spaces and green spaces, more retail convenience – especially fresh food – and better opportunities for youth. On the resources side, people mentioned our abundance of community gardens – over 65, in fact, more than any other neighborhood in New York City. They also mentioned the gardeners themselves, residents who had the vision and energy to turn these vacant lots into vibrant gardens. And they mentioned the youth, over one-third of the population our community, and the potential they held.
Through a coalition of local and city-wide organizations and residents, the East New York Farms! Project came together as a way to use and further develop these resources to meet our needs. Working with youth interns and adult gardeners to increase organic food production in community gardens, we were able to start a small farmers market (just two gardeners during our first season in 1998) that has grown over the years into a thriving destination including dozens of gardeners and local entrepreneurs of many backgrounds, as well as farmers from upstate New York, bringing fresh affordable food to over 17,000 customers each year.
Youth Voice: From Air Jordans to Food Justice
It was a snowy day in April 2002. I was an eleven-year-old kid from East New York, Brooklyn, and I was running to catch up to the bus to take me to my first internship. It was a typical story: a kid not really knowing what he was getting into or becoming a part of.
Sarity Daftary (far right), Phillip Scott (middle) and me at the 2005 RIC conference
But I knew how fortunate I was to be picked. East New York Farms! recruited at various middle schools in the neighborhood. Applications went out every year and fewer than half of them turned into internships. Pressure. My brother had been in the program the year before: more pressure – a lot of pressure for an eleven-year-old who just wanted a pair of Air Jordan’s. Some people dream of winning the Olympics or becoming President, but my goal of immediate material satisfaction from a pair of Jordan’s was the reason I needed to make that bus.
The first day was simple. There was the acclamation, the paperwork, contact information, and the “Hello, we are your supervisors” speech. Before that, I had thought of work as miserable and unbearable – and everything else TV told me it was. But we played ice-breakers and they worked. It didn’t feel like a work day.
I won’t say it never felt like work, but I stayed with the program, and as it grew, so did I. We produced fresh fruits and vegetables in a half-acre garden by the elevated 3 train. My neighborhood was (and still is) dominated by family-owned bodegas, Chinese food restaurants, and other fast food chains. These mom and pop stores are dietary staples here. Many of the foods they sell are full of sugar and sodium. This is what people living here eat, because it’s what’s here, and healthy alternatives are expensive – or not even available. So the garden became a gem, in this community known more in the media for its poverty and dangerous reputation. We stood out and people noticed.
I became inspired to work to better the lives of my people. Statistics are always negative for people like me, or at least that is how I’ve always felt. High-blood pressure and diabetes run in my family. The problem was not that growing up we did not have access to food – but the food we had access to was killing us. So changing the way my low-income neighborhood ate became my new motivation.
New interns came in every year, but ENY Farms! expanded and continually made new roles for their youth. I do not know how they continue coming up with new ideas but I keep coming back. Now I’m in college, and I’m interning for WhyHunger through the ENY Farms! externship program. Helping the community is a process that shouldn’t stop when you are young. People, like vegetables, grow into who they become. They can either be nourished and grow big and strong or they can wither away in a world against them.
Before you write me off as another healthy food nut reforming our food system, understand that there are people who not only have trouble finding money for food, but also don’t have the time and capacity to eat in a way that benefits their health. They have to take whatever scraps they have and bum a quick meal. As they grow older, they are gripped with serious health complications. And it hits home for me because those people are my neighbors.
Maybe I owe it to Michael Jordan for inspiring me to work for this cause. My name is Roy Frias and I am the product of the ENY Farms! program.
– Roy Frias, East New York Farms! Intern, July 22, 2011
Always and Forever: A Poem by Darnell Prince
From the first time walking in to U.C.C, expecting to get the same old experience as any other job: to go in, do my share and get out, and having no regards for anyone else, but myself.
I thought i knew what i was getting myself into: the long work hours, the waking up early and determination too.
As soon as i took the first step in and introduced myself, i could feel the togetherness and the strong presence of welcoming faces. At that very moment my expectations were long gone, for i knew my days at East New York Farms would make me a better person, boost my self esteem and make me strong.
The first day of work i took a big breath of fresh air while shading my eyes from the glare of the sun; when i shaded my eyes my vision cleared now i could see all my fellow interns sifting, turning and weeding all together making our garden beautiful and our community better.
I quickly pitched in and started on my task for i knew Summer was on her way and she was approaching fast.Planting, weeding, turning day-to-day, interacting with new people and learning new things from March to May.
The days were getting longer and our bonds were getting stronger. We strived put our best foot forward for the community for our farmers market was only a couple of weeks away.
Market day finally arrived and euphoric could not even describe how i felt that day. After setting up the market we would listen for the shouts of our market manager, “The market is opened! The market is opened!” she would say. i saw the excitement on our customers’ faces as they left happily with their fresh organic fruits and vegetables.
My memories of East New York Farms is one i will take with me forever: the hardwork, the friendships, and the glorious smiles on our customers’ faces.
I can proudly say that always and forever my time at U.C.C will always be one to remember.
East New York Farms!
United Community Centers
613 New Lots Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11207