The United Nations comes to Brooklyn

For an inside look at New York’s urban agriculture community, read Siena Chrisman’s account of an exchange with a UN delgation in Brooklyn.

by Siena Chrisman, WhyHunger

Last Saturday, VISTA volunteer Shari Rose of Bedford-Stuyvesant shared the value of companion planting at Bed-Stuy Farm with two Kenyan U.N. delegates, and a representative from Nigeria took home practical materials on how to build a composting toilet like the one at Hollenback Community Garden. The exchanges were part of a tour of Brooklyn agricultural sites for delegates to the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which has been meeting in New York City for the last two weeks.

The CSD is responsible for reviewing international progress on declarations and decisions that emerged from the international Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It meets annually in New York in two-year cycles, with each cycle addressing different themes of sustainability, including energy, water, and sanitation. 2008 is the first of a two-year cycle focusing on agriculture and land. Food, by extension, has also been a major subject.

The UN’s host city of New York, of course, has a great deal to contribute to conversations on sustainable agriculture, food production, land use, and other topics of this CSD. To bring the discussions out of the halls of the UN, a coalition of New Yorkers — including WHY, Just Food, and several City Farms trainers — organized the City and Farm Linkages Showcase, a series of weekend events designed to highlight New York’s remarkable food systems work.

Rainwater harvesting and nutrition education

Thirty CSD participants from almost a dozen countries on four continents saw firsthand what sustainability looks like in Brooklyn on Saturday’s City Farm Showcase Tour. The four sites in Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, and East New York represented a progression of approaches to sustainable practices. Accompanying the tour were representatives of the State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the City Council, and the City Parks Department, who engaged in discussions on agriculture and land policy with government and UN agency representatives from South Africa, Barbados, and France. Other conversations were more practical, as delegates working in drought-prone communities in Africa took notes on rainwater harvesting systems and a Venezuelan agroecologist examined collard seedlings with a Bolivian NGO representative.

The new composting toilet at the tour’s first stop, Hollenback Community Garden elicited much interest from the delegates, several of whom said it would be a useful addition to their own projects. Hollenback and second stop Hattie Carthan Community Garden are traditional community gardens where members grow in plots for themselves, but each is working on larger sustainability projects.

At Hattie Carthan Garden, Just Food trainer Yonnette Fleming gave a healthy cooking demonstration; one in a series she and other gardeners teach as a way to improve community health. The international visitors were surprised to learn that low-income communities in the US have little access to healthy foods. South African NGO representative Kiara Worth described several poor rural and urban communities she has worked with, pointing out that each of them has fresh food markets, roadside stands, or small farms. “In a city as big and well-established as New York,” she wondered, “how can you not have fresh vegetables?”

“These are such nice houses!”

Many delegates were further surprised to learn that a quarter of Brooklyn’s population is below the poverty line, both because New York is portrayed in international media as a wealthy city and because poverty in the US often looks different than in other countries. To illustrate the context of Brooklyn Rescue Mission food pantry and the adjoining Bed-Stuy Farm, Reverend DeVanie Jackson led the group on a walking tour of the neighborhood. The delegates commented on the nice houses and cars, and Reverend Jackson explained that while it may not look like people are poor, the cost of even subsidized housing is so high that many people have no money left for food. Passing bodegas and fast food restaurants, before arriving at the site of a proposed new farmers’ market, one delegate observed, “Look at all this horrible food [the people in this neighborhood] are given.”

To improve the diet of some neighborhood residents, the 50ft x 100ft Bed-Stuy Farm annually grows 7,000 of produce to give to beneficiaries of the food pantry. Both Bed-Stuy Farm and East New York Farms!, a program with two intensive market farms that was the last stop on the tour, work with local youth as well, teaching them concepts of better health and nutrition through practicing small-scale sustainable agriculture, soil improvement, and marketing to their community.

Looking ahead

The international attention to Brooklyn agriculture also drew the interest of New Yorkers, including government, press, local funders, and neighborhood residents. Indeed, as globalization leads to increased urbanization worldwide, these projects give New York an opportunity to showcase its working models of grassroots urban revitalization to numerous audiences. Harold Liversage of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development was already looking forward to greater international participation next year. “The high-level ministers need to be out here; they’re the ones who could really learn from these projects,” he said, committing to recruit top government officials for a city farm tour next May.

Over lunch at Hattie Carthan Garden, prepared by and shared with members of the local community, Maria Arce, from the United Kingdom, commented, “My impression is that US food and food habits are very bad. It’s good to know this kind of thing is happening.” She took a bite of homemade cucumber salad and added, “Next time I come to these meetings, I’ll come get my food here.”

For other press on the tour, see the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Brooklyn Community Gardens Inspire Visitors from Four Continents,” and a brief mention in the New York Times, “City Farmers’ Crops Go from Vacant Lot to Market.”