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What grows in East New York: A case study of ‘East New York Farms!’ and
examination of expectations of urban agriculture
Authors: Sarita Daftary-Steel, Christine M. Porter, Suzanne Gervais, David Vigil, and
“How beautiful it is, and how honorable it is when someone from Jamaica goes to
Pauline or goes to her sister and [buys] callaloo,…and you could see the joy in that
interaction. And where do you have that? It’s so beautiful, that out of East New York
you get to have that joy, that possibility...For me, I’m looking forward to teaching
people what grows in East New York”
Kele Nkhereanye, community educator and mini-grantee with East New York Farms!
<IMAGE 1 HERE>
East New York grows East New York Farms!
East New York is a culturally rich, ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged
community located in eastern Brooklyn. Our 183,971 residents are predominantly Black
(52%) and Hispanic (37%), with approximately 35% immigrant households. Our
community faces problems that are symptoms of historical discrimination, including high
levels of violence, high poverty rates of (32%), high unemployment (14%), and one of
the highest rates of incarceration in the city. Many residents struggle to find and afford
fresh healthy food, and this is reflected in high rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart
disease (King, L. et al 2015).
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In the mid-1990s, East New York was slowly recovering from decades of neglect and
disinvestment spurred by racially discriminatory housing policies, and real estate tactics
that exploited these policies. From the 1960s-70s, large numbers of white residents left
East New York for the suburbs and new developments on the outskirts of the city that
were at times in law and in practice only available to white people. East New York
became riddled with abandoned properties. As these were knocked down or burned down
in the 1970s and 80s, they became vacant lots that gave birth to dozens of community
gardens. By the 1990s some redevelopment efforts had begun in East New York. In
particular the Nehemiah Homes project led by East Brooklyn Congregations, which
constructed thousands of single-family homes, spurred a substantial repopulation of East
New York with homeowners (NYU Furman Center, 2015).
The East New York Farms! Project (ENYF) began operations 1998. In 1995, the Pratt
Center for Community Development worked with local organizations to initiate a series
of community opinion forums. They asked residents to identify both needs and existing
resources in East New York. Needs mentioned included more safe public spaces and
green spaces, more income generation opportunities, more retail convenience – especially
fresh food – and better opportunities for youth. Resources noted included our abundance
of community gardens – over 65 – in fact, more than any other neighborhood in New
York City. Participants also mentioned the gardeners themselves, residents who had the
vision and commitment to turn these vacant lots into vibrant gardens, and they mentioned
youth, over one-third of the population in our community, and the potential they held.
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Through a coalition of organizations and local residents called the East New York
Planning Group, the East New York Farms! Project came together as a way to further
develop these resources to meet community needs. For more details on ENYF’s history
and growth, see the project’s comprehensive case study online (Daftary-Steel & Gervais,
2014). Since 2007, ENYF has operated as a program of United Community Centers
(UCC), one of the founding members of the East New York Planning Group and an
organization with a more than 60-year history of engaging residents in fostering social
change in East New York.
East New York Farms! helps grow East New York
Building on community assets identified through that planning process, ENYF grew
steadily to a program that today engages 33 youth interns, over 150 local gardeners, and
hundreds of volunteers in growing food and strengthening community through a network
of 40 community gardens and more than 20 backyard gardens throughout East New
York. ENYF staff supports them and they support ENYF and each other.
Today, the goals of ENYF are to:
- Make fresh, healthy food more available and affordable in our community.
- Promote a healthier local and global environment by producing our own food using
organic methods and working with other local growers.
- Build our local economy by creating markets for local gardeners and other producers
to sell their products.
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- Use food as a means to engage community members in taking action and leadership
roles as youth interns, gardeners, garden coordinators, garden advocates, community
educators, advisory committee and board members, or simply conscious consumers.
- Use food as a means to build community by growing, cooking, and celebrating
different food traditions and bringing together people across barriers of age, race,
ethnicity, gender, and religion.
ENYF’s major program areas include:
Gardener Support and Food Production: ENYF works with a growing network of
gardeners representing backyard gardens and community gardens throughout East New
York. We support gardeners with technical aspects of growing and selling food, as well
as building participation in and advocating for their gardens. Staff members provide over
200 hours in individual technical assistance to gardeners in addition to organizing 15
group workshops annually. ENYF also manages three urban farms--the UCC Youth
Farm, Fresh Farm, and the Pink Houses Community Farm--where we practice intensive
sustainable agriculture methods that can be replicated throughout the community.
Farmers Markets and Food Access: Through two community-run farmers markets ENYF
works to make fresh food available and affordable while creating opportunities for
entrepreneurs and creating places for neighbors to gather with regular community
programming like performances, cooking contests, workshops, and activities for kids
(Daftary- Steel, 2014). At times in the past we have also operated subscription farm share
programs. Through a Steering Committee established as part of our work with the Food
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Dignity Project, we offer mini-grants to East New York residents who are developing
projects to increase food access in the community.
Youth Internship Program: From March through November each year, 33 youth from
East New York participate in our intensive internship program. They are involved in all
aspects of running a half-acre organic farm and this farm’s vendor stand at the farmers
market, as well as providing support to other gardens throughout East New York. Many
youth stay involved for multiple years as “returning interns” who help lead the program
and train new interns (Daftary-Steel, 2015).
Community Education: Community Educators are residents trained in partnership with a
citywide organization, Just Food, to provide cooking demonstrations, presentations and
gardening workshops to educate our neighbors about what’s happening around food and
health in East New York and how to get involved. Through the UCC Youth Farm, we
also provide on-farm education for approximately 1000 visitors and volunteers of all
ages, including many youth from local schools and after-school programs.
Dodging the ‘silver bullet’ of unrealistic expectations of urban agriculture
Not just in East New York, but across the country, urban agriculture (UA) has emerged
as a promising way to address many important issues, including growing food for local
communities, preserving open space, promoting health, and developing local leaders.
What counts as possible benefits of UA depends in part on what activities count as UA.
Here, we use the New York City Five Borough Farm project’s definition, as it is
grounded in the experience of dozens of New York UA operations:
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Urban agriculture can be defined as growing fruits, herbs and vegetables,
and raising animals in cities, a process that is accompanied by many other
complementary activities such as processing and distributing food,
collecting and reusing food waste and rainwater, and educating, organizing
and employing local residents (Cohen et al., 2012, p. 13).
A worrying expectation, however, has developed for UA to meet these important and
ambitious goals while also being financially sustainable without outside funding. We call
this expectation the unattainable trifecta of urban agriculture—the myth that UA can,
without long-term funding investments or major policy shifts, simultaneously do three
things that are each hard enough to do on their own:
1) Provide good food to people with limited financial resources at prices they can
2) Provide job training, work experience, and/or leadership development for people
typically excluded from employment.
3) Generate income for producers and create jobs funded by profits from sales.
While ENYF’s wide-ranging goals and activities above hint at the depth and breadth of
our project, we understand that UA is not a silver bullet, nor can it achieve its greatest
potential in terms of social impacts without outside funding that is often substantial and
ongoing. Below we examine some of the challenges that arise as UA organizations work
to meet each of these expectations. The authors recently discussed this set of expectations
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in a paper titled The Unattainable Trifecta of Urban Agriculture, and this section draws
heavily from that work (Daftary-Steel et al., in press).
Expectation 1: Provide good food to people with limited financial resources at prices
they can afford.
Like many UA endeavors, ENYF explicitly aims to create access to fresh, good food for
people who would otherwise struggle to afford it. “Good” food being, per the Wallace
Center’s definition, “healthy, green, fair and affordable” (National Good Food Network,
retrieved Dec 2, 2015).
But achieving this goal is complicated by at least two significant barriers. Firstly, though
on average Americans spend a lower proportion of their incomes on food than people in
other nations, the US also has one of the highest inequality rates of Global North nations,
so, what many people in the US can afford to spend on food is very little. Half of
households in East New York have incomes of $40,000, with nearly 30% earning
$20,000 or less, even though the area’s official employment rate is 85% (Armstrong et
al., 2014, p. 80). A family of four that receives the maximum annual Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit of $7,788 gets an average of $7.13 per
family meal (USDA, 2015). Other food assistance programs, while helpful, are even
smaller in scale. For example, the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), which
provides vouchers for seniors and women with children to use at farmers markets, and is
used extensively at the East New York Farmers Market, provides only $20-$24 per year
per household. As a result, if our UA operations charged the actual cost of producing our
locally grown, organic fresh fruits and vegetables, our food would be unaffordable for
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most people in our neighborhood.
Secondly, our largest national food and farm policy programs do not support the
production or consumption of fresh, healthy food. The striking dissonance between our
federal guidelines about what we should eat versus federal supports for what food we
produce is noted with each federal “farm bill” (e.g., Barrington, 2011; Physicians
Committee for Responsible Medicine, 2007). The USDA dietary guidelines urge that we
fill half of our plates with fruits and vegetables. Yet our federal spending on agriculture
programs allocates a fraction of a percent to fruit and vegetable production. Producers of
these so-called “specialty crops” then need to recoup their full cost of production, unlike
those growing heavily subsidized commodity crops such as corn and soy. For example,
according to the Environmental Working Group farm subsidy database of USDA-
provided data, from 1995-2012 corn producers received a total of $84.4 billion in
subsidies, while apples producers garnered $262 million (Environmental Working Group,
2015). While the good food that ENYF produced did receive some federal support during
that time in the form of competitive short-term grants, we got zero dollars in annual
The combined realities of low incomes and comparatively high produce prices mean that
the unhealthy options are too often the most affordable and accessible options for
millions of Americans living in communities like East New York.
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Expectation 2: Provide job training, work experience, and/or leadership development for
people typically excluded from employment.
As the research of the Five Borough Farm Project (Five Borough Farm, 2015) notes, UA
has the potential not just to feed people but to also contribute to youth development,
education and job readiness. Certainly, the need for innovative approaches to job training,
job creation, income generation, and employment pathways is clear. One in seven young
people in the US is “disconnected,” meaning not in school and not working (Salemson,
2012). In East New York, this rate jumps to 25% (Measure of America, 2014, p.3).
Nearly 4 million Americans suffer from long-term unemployment, defined as such
because they have been looking for work and have been unemployed for more than 6
months (Kasperkevic, 2014). Because UA is often community-based, therapeutic and
linked to local organizations, combining UA with job training, leadership development,
or employment of the “least employable” (such as the differently abled, people with
criminal records, or “disconnected” young people) is a natural fit. However, both
experienced staff and adequate staff-to-participant ratios are needed to provide
appropriate training that goes beyond acquiring technical skills. In addition to helping
participants develop a range of leadership skills, UA job training programs often need to
compensate for deficits in math, reading and writing skills due to poor quality public
schools, and to address social and emotional needs, on top of teaching technical farming
skills that are often completely new to participants.
Each year ENYF provides hundreds of hours of leadership development and job training
for 33 youth, ages 13-18, through our nine-month paid internship program (Daftary-Steel,
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2015). But the challenges many of our youth interns face each day are not just about
accessing affordable fruits and vegetables, but about surviving. At any given time, interns
in our program may be living in shelters, struggling academically, worried about their
safety traveling to and from school and work, suffering physical or verbal abuse at home,
navigating the challenges of immigration, dealing with the frustration of being stopped-
and-frisked frequently, battling mental health issues, or just coping with the daily
challenges and indignities of being poor. A question that funders, researchers, students,
and reporters often ask us about our youth program is if our interns now eat more
vegetables than they did before the program. The short answer is almost certainly yes, but
that isn’t the most salient point nor is it primarily how we assess our work. We do,
however, judge ourselves by our ability to help youth see themselves as valuable, capable
people, well-prepared to make thoughtful choices to improve their own lives and the
world around them (Daftary-Steel 2015, p. 17).
Creating opportunities for the many people chronically excluded from our workforce is a
responsibility that our country cannot ignore. But expecting that urban farms could or
should do this without long-term investments of outside funds for that purpose is
unrealistic, all the more so if we are also expecting people new to farming and even to
working in the formal economy to produce enough to sell at a profit.
Expectation 3: Generate income for producers and create jobs funded by profits from
In our experience, this expectation arises from both UA organizers and proponents
themselves as well as from funders. For example, a potential funder that visited ENYF
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praised our strong leadership by community members, our highly successful youth
internship program, and our community market, but was disappointed with the revenue
generated from produce sales to our community. Their representative suggested that we
should consider selling a portion of our produce to some high-end restaurants to generate
more income, or if we did not want to take any of our current land out of community-
directed production, perhaps we should start a rooftop farm on the top of our building and
direct this produce to restaurants. A rooftop farm focused on high-end products would
have involved adding or shifting a significant amount of staff time and required far more
capital than we had or than the funder would offer. A rooftop location would also move
our work literally away from easy community access and view. Since garden-grown
produce sells out at our markets each week, directing any of it to restaurants would
interfere with our goal of meeting the need for fresh produce in our community. We
gently explained why neither of these revenue-generating strategies were practical for us
or a fit with our mission. We were not invited for a full proposal and they suggested that
we reach out to them if we were considering expanding our economic development focus
in the future.
At ENYF, economic development is among our goals. More than 45 gardeners in our
network, two regional farmers, and 15 craft and prepared food vendors join our youth
interns in selling at our two farmers markets from June through November. Our large
Saturday market and a Wednesday farm stand collectively generated over $110,000 in
sales last year, with over $50,000 earned by local residents, and $20,000 in sales of
urban-grown produce. Customers redeemed nearly $60,000 worth of food assistance
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dollars through government programs like FMNP, SNAP, the New York City
Healthbucks Program, and New York State FreshConnect Program.
Vendors at our market earn supplemental - and in some cases primary - income, but we
have no illusion that the internships created through our youth program, much less long-
term living wage jobs, could be supported by the sales we currently achieve through our
half-acre youth-and-staff run farm, which is likely the most intensively farmed space in
our network of East New York gardens.
Making a farming business profitable, even moderately profitable, is hard. The median
farm operator in the US incurs a net loss (Economic Research Service, 2014). Notably,
urban gardens or small sustainable farms are not less efficient or less productive than
large farms; the opposite appears to be the case (IAASTD, 2009, p. 151). Research by
some of our partners in a national action research project called Food Dignity, where
gardeners in Ithaca, New York and in Laramie, Wyoming are quantifying their home and
community garden harvests, has found that average harvest yields per area in community
gardens are on par with yield rates from commercial farms (Conk et al., in review).
Though producing and selling food in UA operations does generate some revenue and
can be an important source of unrestricted funds for non-profit farms, for those aiming to
provide other benefits to their communities, such as affordable food to their
neighborhoods and jobs for the least “employable”,” that revenue will not cover
operational costs, much less generate a profit. ENYF for example earns about 2% of its
operating budget through produce sales. City Slicker Farms, a UA organization operating
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in West Oakland for nearly 15 years to date, reports covering about 4% of its operational
costs that way (City Slicker Farms, 2013, p.3). Like ENYF, City Slicker Farms focuses
exclusively on selling produce within its community at affordable prices and runs related
programs that generate no income, such as helping community and backyard gardeners
grow their own food, and providing job training and leadership development for
Most UA organization operators know that we cannot meet the expectation to sell healthy
food at prices that poor people can afford (i.e., lower sales income) and provide
substantial traditional and non-traditional workforce training (i.e., higher production
costs), while also generating sufficient income from sales to sustain a business and living
wages. But it seems many UA operations are reluctant to admit that, at least publicly.
Such an admission can look like a failure of their organization or enterprise, rather than
realistic statement about the failures of broader systems and what kind of support is
required to enable UA operations to address some of these failures (Lawson, 2005). Some
practitioners are speaking up and trying to craft a better-informed narrative of what
makes an UA project successful (Johnson, 2014). Urban agriculture, in the words of
LaDonna Redmond, requires “becoming organizers and not food science providers”
(DeLind, 2014, p. 5).
Lessons from ENYF successes, struggles and strategies
Despite the unrealistic expectations to which UA projects are often held, ENYF has
survived and by many measures thrived as a community-driven effort for almost 20
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years. We have learned a great deal about how to sustain this type of work, and below we
offer some lessons from our experience.
Lesson 1: Remember who you are and where you come from
ENYF started as the result of a community planning process focused on identifying
needs, assets, and opportunities in East New York. ENYF did not start because East New
York residents were primarily concerned about demonstrating the potential of urban
agriculture and promoting sustainable lifestyles, nor because they were uniquely focused
on food as the only important issue in their community. ENYF started because our
community was struggling, and looking for a way to use the tools we had to build
something that could improve quality of life. This has proved a useful lens for
maintaining our focus and our accountability to the East New York community.
Given the impossibility of reaching the “unattainable trifecta” of UA goals described
above without significant and sustainable outside financial support, ENYF made and
continues to make choices to focus on two parts of this trifecta: providing good food at
prices our neighbors can afford; and providing job training, work experience, and
leadership development for our community. We work to make good fresh food available
and affordable in our community by growing it in the spaces we manage with our staff
and youth interns and supporting neighbors in doing the same in their community and
backyard gardens, and creating community markets. We also use food as a means to build
leadership in our community, working most intensively with youth in our structured
internship program but also substantially with adults who participate in training around
sustainable agriculture, marketing, community education, grant-writing, meeting
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facilitation, and more. We do recognize the great need for income generating
opportunities in our community, and strive to create them where we reasonably can.
Youth are paid stipends, market gardeners earn supplemental income at our farmers
market, community educators earn stipends for teaching gardening and cooking
workshops, and many gardeners save money on groceries by growing their own food. We
also recognize this robust range of programming requires external financial support, in
the same way that our public education institutions need external financial support, and
we are committed to ongoing fundraising efforts.
We make this choice explicitly. As in the earlier story about a visit from a potential
funder, ENYF staff members are asked fairly often if we could sell some of our produce
to high-end buyers to subsidize the cost of other produce that we sell to our community at
low prices. The realistic answer is, not really. The UCC Youth Farm, our half-acre farm
cultivated by youth interns, sells about $10,000 worth of produce each year. If we took a
quarter of that produce, quadrupled the price, and sold it to restaurants, we could make an
extra $7,500, towards a total annual budget of $430,000.1 For that $7,500, we would have
to shift our mission, start a new program area focusing staff time on securing and
delivering to high-end restaurants that are generally far from our farm, and make our
market stand in our own community, which quickly sells out of most items, 25% emptier.
1 Even though ENYF programs are so integrated that it’s hard to truly separate costs, we estimate that the UCC Youth
Farm costs alone are about $38,000 per year. This does not include any youth program labor, but does include farm
manager labor, and does include time spent leading educational tours and hosting volunteers, since we cannot
imagine running our farm and refusing to let a local first grade class visit, for example. Staff salaries are low for New
York City ($35-45K per year), and overhead is low because we pay no rent for our basement office space.”
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We also make this choice because we understand where our work sits in the history and
trajectory of our community. East New York is among many communities of color still
feeling the deep wounds of decades of public and private disinvestment – spanning from
the 1930s arguably to the present day, in the forms of redlining, blockbusting, restrictive
covenants, planned shrinkage, and predatory lending, among others. This disinvestment
formed the updated face of structural racism that limited wealth creation in the North for
people whose wealth creation opportunities had already been blocked by enslavement in
the South and the Caribbean, followed by Black Codes, land and property loss through
domestic terrorism and federal discrimination, and Jim Crow laws. Our ongoing reality of
structural racism, that has been documented in everything from property values to quality
of education to racial disparities in sentencing and employment discrimination, has led to
vast income gaps and even greater wealth gaps that afflict primarily black and Latino
communities like East New York (see, e.g., Marwell, 2007; Bouie, 2014,).
Today, this means that when people in East New York want to get together to do
something, they can and do bring resources like knowledge, pride, diversity, farming
experience, available land, and more, but financial resources and disposable wealth or
income are often scarce. Funds from government and private grants represent a small
amount of the redistribution that probably should happen and reparations that probably
are owed to many East New Yorkers. Needing to apply for grants is not ideal, but if we
are willing to put in the extra time to find the funders who will let us do things the way
we know best, and we can manage to maintain our focus in the face of misguided
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suggestions that may come from people who have money to give, we can maintain a
project that is community-led even if it is not exclusively community-funded.
Our commitment to building ownership, leadership, knowledge, and food access in East
New York makes it fairly easy to see that a rooftop farming and restaurant supply
initiative would have been a distraction from our core work. Using this filter also helps us
carefully select only the grant opportunities, partnerships, coalitions, events, interviews
and conferences that seem likely to serve the true purpose of our work, even as these
opportunities have multiplied with growing attention to urban agriculture and health
issues. For example, we have sometimes faced a challenge in explaining to funders and
potential funders why we do not plan to expand beyond East New York. The first reason
is that focusing on East New York is justifiable because in it live over 180,000 people,
each of whom matters, and we have certainly not exceeded our capacity to grow our work
within East New York. The second reason is that being rooted in our community is one of
the keys to our success. We appreciate opportunities to serve as a model for groups who
want to carry out similar projects in their own communities, but they need to form their
own projects based on the assets and needs that are unique to their community. Then we
can also learn with and from them.
This filter helps us also identify what are the right opportunities. For example, when
Porter (second author of this chapter), reached out to ENYF in 2010 to invite us to be a
partner in the Food Dignity action research project she was developing, we were drawn to
the focus on seeking answers to questions that we would help shape, on capturing and
sharing our stories the way we wanted them to be told, and on providing leadership
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development support through and training funds and through mini-grants that could
provide support for our neighbors to realize their own ideas. It also built on our prior
experience with a gardener-managed revolving loan fund that we developed through a
partnership with Heifer International.
ENYF participates in other networks that stretch beyond East New York when our
participation seems likely to contribute to larger change that will benefit our community,
and when this participation provides leadership development opportunities for our
members. Some examples include co-founding the Brownsville East New York
Gardeners Initiative to bolster membership in gardens throughout our neighboring
communities; engaging staff, gardeners, and youth interns in delivering testimony at city
hearings on land tenure for gardens as part of the New York City Community Garden
Coalition; and presenting about our collaborative farm-trials of culturally-relevant crops
at regional conferences like the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Recently, ENYF
has taken the lead in forming a regional network of youth food justice organizations with
the goal of sharing resources, developing young leaders, and working towards policy
changes affecting our communities.
Making these choices has been primarily about knowing who we are accountable to and
what our strengths and capabilities are, rather than about sticking to narrow definitions of
what we can and cannot do. In fact developing programs in ways that combine
community and organizational assets in sometimes non-traditional ways has been one of
our most successful strategies.
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For example, we do substantial work with both youth and adults - which is to say that it is
neither youth nor adults who are the “real” focus of our programs. It’s both, and we are
constantly developing new ways for community members of all ages to engage with
ENYF and with each other. Our recently developed Fresh Farm is a space where
members include elder gardeners, youth alumni, and current youth interns. We’ve seen
them exchanging farming techniques, watering each others’ garden beds, and sharing
stories. We also offer workshops for both youth and adults – conducted together and
separately – to talk about working effectively across generations. Young people and
adults build relationships that extend beyond the program and have the opportunity to
appreciate the assets each other bring to this work. Additionally, the nature of a youth
program with a nine-month internship cycle also means that our interns can’t quite have
ownership over a garden space in the same way that adults can. Engaging adults
facilitates community ownership at another level than we could achieve through our
youth program alone. Although leadership development with these two groups requires
different strategies, structures and skills, we see residents of all ages, and the
relationships between them, as assets for strengthening our work and our community.
We also run our own farm (the UCC Youth Farm) and provide assistance to other
growers. Many UA groups do one or the other, but for ENYF, combining these efforts
helps us reach our goals of increasing local production of affordable fresh food while also
demonstrating intensive sustainable production techniques that other growers may want
to adopt. This also enables youth interns to have a growing space that they manage, and
opportunities to learn from other growers in the neighborhood.
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Being steadfast about who we are has meant passing up possible funding opportunities
that were an almost-fit, but it ultimately ensured that we stayed true to our mission, which
kept staff and members engaged, sustained community support, and eventually helped us
build a strong reputation with funders.
Lesson 2: Learn intentionally and grow slowly
East New York has seen lofty redevelopment plans amount to nothing; has seen
initiatives of non-profit organizations start and end abruptly; and has seen much promised
but often little delivered. With our knowledge of this history, we have aimed to build
something lasting. This has meant prioritizing continuous learning, and using that
learning to inform incremental growth. This has also meant taking fewer risks - or
perhaps more calculated ones - and fewer big leaps to start major initiatives that might
have to be discontinued when funding runs out, or if we discover these initiatives are not
a good fit. Because this ability to demonstrate consistency and stability is incredibly
important in East New York, it has been a cornerstone of our success.
Before any plans for ENYF were developed, community organizations partnered with the
Pratt Center to hear residents define what they saw as assets and needs in East New York.
This process was foundational for ENYF, and we recognize that our community is
dynamic and changing. This requires us to constantly use feedback, suggestions,
experiences, and observations to improve and adjust how we work. We have found that
frequent and adaptable ways of evaluating success have served us better than larger, less
frequent, and more formal assessments. The changes to programs that resulted from our
ongoing learning were often not grand changes – like creating a quarterly calendar to help
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members plan ahead for workshops and meeting, or having returning interns come to
work fifteen minutes earlier so that they would be better prepared to lead – but we found
that running our core programs basically the same way with constant small but
significant improvements enabled us to best serve East New York, and take direction
from our members and community. This sometimes made fundraising more difficult, as
new initiatives are often more attractive to funders than plans to strengthen existing
programs or continue effective ones.
Ways that we take direction from our members and community vary by necessity.
Structured methods can be important, but we have also found an inverse relation between
the structure and depth of participation and the number of people that can make the time
to be involved. We learned that we needed to create multiple ways for members and
community to engage in evaluating success and shaping future plans. In some cases
using more flexible models of participation rather than obligatory direct consensus-based
decision-making enabled more people to weigh in on the elements of ENYF that matter
most to them. For example, for years we held our year-end review and planning meetings
as group discussions, but this required people to commit substantial time on a weekend or
late evening, and we were concerned, especially as ENYF grew, that a fairly small
proportion of members were engaging in the process. So we shifted to an “open house”
format, with staff members facilitating different review “stations” by program area over
the course of a few hours. Members are free to arrive and leave any time within those few
hours, and move through stations as their time and interest allow. It also facilitates more
connections among members, since it’s now easier them to engage in one-on-one
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conversations that would be hard to make space for in a focused group discussion. We
saw many more members engage in the review process this way.
Being a learning organization also required being willing to realize that our initial plans
were unrealistic. For example, the first iteration of our youth program in which interns
worked directly with gardeners, rather than as part of a coordinated program, did not
provide a strong enough group experience to keep youth engaged and motivated, and
required too much coordination from gardeners. In order to create a better structure for
long-term youth leadership development and support more positive peer relationships, we
shifted to a structure in which youth interns work in gardens together in crews of nine,
with staff members who coordinate this work and create curriculum to complement it.
Listening, asking questions, and responding in practical ways to feedback from residents
has also led us, at times, to adopt strategies even when we have not seen them in practice
elsewhere. For example, most farmers markets do not buy, store, and rent equipment for
vendors, but we saw early on that doing so would vastly expand opportunities for local
entrepreneurs who lacked transportation or funds to purchase their own equipment. We
also provide free assistance and supplies for backyard gardeners as well as community
gardeners; as far as we know, we are the only organization in New York City that does
so. We do it because it creates yet another way for more residents to participate in
growing food and community in East New York.
Growing slowly is an important part of our learning approach, so that our programs do
not outpace our capacity to learn with and from members and to adapt in response to our
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learning. It’s a practice that can be hard to stick to. For example, after the East New
York Farmers Market had been running only a couple of seasons and was still quite
small, we submitted a proposal to develop a full-time permanent market site, which we
thankfully did not get. We see now that the rent that we would have needed to charge
vendors to sustain the site would likely have excluded the gardeners and micro-
entrepreneurs who have formed the backbone of our market, and few of them have
enough supply and time to run a full-time market stand. As our Saturday market grew
however, we did add a Wednesday market stand in response to customer and vendor
feedback. We sometimes pilot limited versions of new programs before having any
funding for them, so that we can spend a year or so figuring out if an initiative would
work and how, instead of raising money that might “lock” us into activities that may not
be as needed or wanted by our community as we thought. Before we started our formal
Community Educator training program, we piloted such a program, without dedicated
funding, to see how much interest there was and figure out the kinks before seeking
funding for the full program that operates today.
Lesson 3: Cultivate gardens and relationships
The tangible impacts of our work – the food we are able to grow, the supplemental
income gardeners are able to earn, the acres of green spaces that might not exist were it
not for gardens – all matter hugely in a community where material needs are substantial.
Relationships, and the way in which we sustain these relationships and nurture
leadership, are equally important.
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Because people are so central to our work, we are always working to create more ways
for people to participate in ENYF. For example, although we try to encourage as much
production as possible on the land available to us in order to meet the great need for fresh
food in East New York, we also strive to meet people "where they're at," recognizing that
the energy and capacity that people have for food production varies greatly. Our Share
Table provides an opportunity for growers of any scale to participate in our markets.
Gardeners can drop off produce at the Share Table to be sold by youth interns, and then
share proceeds with the youth program. It developed as we learned that only a few
gardeners had the time or harvest supply to participate in the market by operating their
own stands, but many could contribute to a cooperative table run by youth interns. The
Share Table expands income generation opportunities as well as volume and variety of
produce at our markets, since the dozens of gardeners who participate in the Share Table
hail from a diversity of places including Bangladesh, Guyana, Nigeria, South Carolina
and more, and often grow foods they cultivated in those places. Gardeners who
participate in the Share Table also build relationships with youth interns and other
gardeners and vendors, and tell their neighbors about ENYF.
In addition to building broad engagement, we acknowledge the importance of long-term
deep engagement from our core of most committed members. For example, markets often
face a challenge of hitting the right balance of adequate supply and demand on each
market day. Customers won't come if there aren’t enough vendors or products, and
vendors often won't come, or won’t stay, if there aren't enough customers. Local gardener
Johanna Willins and John Ameroso of Cornell Cooperative Extension committed to
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selling their produce week after week in the first years of building the market to create
the consistent supply that was needed to eventually attract customers. Other early joiners
like gardeners Eliza Butler, Leila Jamison, Adell Oliver, Gemma Garcia, and Alma
Pearson (all members of the East New York Gardeners Association that was active at the
time) sold their produce and contributed to variety and supply at the market when it was
still quite small. Other dedicated gardener-vendors like Pauline Reid and Dennis &
Marlene Wilks have contributed substantial quantities of produce to our markets on a
weekly basis for years. Many of our core members have been involved in ENYF for more
than 15 years. We try to recognize their contributions and encourage their continued
engagement in various ways, like discounts on market fees for vendors who sell
consistently, do outreach for the market and attend monthly ENYF meetings, as well as
opportunities to further their leadership by attending conferences, trainings, and events
that connect them with the food justice movement beyond East New York.
Lesson 4: Invest in staff
Hiring and retaining experienced and committed staff members, primarily in roles
designed to be full-time and long-term, enables everything else we do at ENYF. Our
staff, though a relatively small team of five full-time and two-part time employees,
enables our members and volunteers to contribute their vision, commitment, and skills
while they also work, raise families, go to school, and meet the many other demands of
their lives, including the additional demands poverty creates. Without the ability to pay
for quicker or more convenient options, many East New Yorkers spend significant
amounts of time doing things that wealthier people are able to avoid, like going to the
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laundromat, enduring long waits in doctor’s offices, enrolling in support programs, or
using public transportation exclusively. The time staff can commit is an important
resource to facilitate the engagement of others. For example, while committed volunteers
worked on developing the UCC Youth Farm for years, it took staff specifically assigned
to this project to be able to convert it into a productive farm that could then host dozens
of young people in an internship program and more than a thousand visitors and
Retaining staff helps us to continuously learn from and build on past experiences, and is
crucial for building the relationships that anchor our work. Because a deep understanding
of “where we come from” is so important, we also prioritize hiring staff with a
connection to East New York, especially residents. To do this effectively, we have to
make sure our staff recruitment practices are aligned with this goal. We share job
opportunities with our local networks first, and have removed educational requirements
from our job postings, recognizing that many of our neighbors have not had access to
higher education opportunities, and that emphasizing specific skills and relevant
experience would better serve our goals.
Though ENYF has not been able to offer some of the more conventional incentives for
staff retention - like high salaries, significant raises, or frequent promotions - we have
been able to retain good staff through investments in our team’s personal growth and
autonomy by making both collaborative and decentralized decisions about our work.
<TEXT BOX 1 HERE>
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Daryl Marshall has been a Community Organizer and Youth Worker with ENYF since
2011, and was involved as a vendor and community educator prior to that. He
contributed this reflection about his experience working with community gardeners over
the past five years.
Listening, recognizing and trusting are key components to our work with gardeners.
Keeping these things in mind as you interact with people is paramount. Growing food is
important , but it goes hand in hand with building and maintaining relationships If you
want to be welcomed into these open spaces you have to acknowledge and respect
gardeners’ habits, rituals and culture. Remember as far as they know you can be
observing them for a project and never coming back.
Why should one bear all, and give you unlimited access to their space and time? Granted
a community garden is not their space technically, it's public property. Unfortunately in a
community with limited access to ownership and power, these spaces take on a whole
other meaning. This is what it sometimes is about, not just vegetables and extra money,
but being able to trust us as an organization that will have their best interest in mind. So
when we do introduce them to a researcher, student, volunteer or potential new member,
they are more comfortable.
The allure of this work for me was not compensation, but being able to do something
meaningful in my community. I could have and wanted to be a fireman, however ageism,
tests, and nepotism are some things I might have needed to overcome to become one.
However there was no test, and my age or background didn't matter when it was time for
me to be hired at ENYF. What did matter was my proven record of already volunteering
in my community and my willingness to learn.
As one of the first-founded and longest-running community urban agriculture projects in
the US, ENYF owes its success to the values and consistency that we have maintained as
our work has grown and evolved. With our commitment to staying rooted in East New
York, we have looked at ways to expand and deepen our future work within the
community by focusing on three areas: 1) public housing developments--there is a high
need for food access and community-building work, and a dense population of residents
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to contribute to these efforts; 2) schools--we offer tours and volunteer opportunities to
many schools within East New York, as well as developing culinary education programs
led by young people; 3) newer immigrant groups--expanding communities of immigrants
from West Africa and South Asia bring with them unique food cultures and assets, and
we hope to use our gardens and markets to help integrate them into the community. At
the same time, we will continue our core programs because we have seen how they offer
multiple points of entry and multiple benefits to East New York residents.
Our experience has shown us that urban agriculture is incredibly valuable even when it is
not profitable. There were many opportunities and incentives along the way to focus too
much on the wrong things – to look narrowly at how much food we could produce, how
much income we could earn, how quickly we could expand, or to emphasize only
quantity but not quality of community involvement. In doing so, we could have
squandered some of our deepest and most lasting potential. Urban agriculture as ENYF
has practiced it has always been a way to further develop the potential of our community
by investing in local leaders and working with them to create something we can all take
pride in because we built it together.
We urge philanthropists and policy makers to continue and expand financial support for
urban agriculture, so that community-based projects like ours can continue to create
physical, social, environmental, and educational benefits as well as food and income, and
to work with UA practitioners and others to examine and address root causes of the social
issues that have driven farms and gardens to sprout in vacant lots all over the country.
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“I hope that everybody that comes to East New York sees where we came from, and
where we are today. We’re really doing a wonderful job.”
Eliza Butler, coordinator of New Visions Garden and East New York Farms!
The authors have collaborated since 2011 as part of the five-year action-research
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authors are co-investigators. Food Dignity is supported by an Agriculture and Food
Research Initiative Competitive Grant (no. 2011-68004-30074) from the USDA National
Institute of Food and Agriculture (www.fooddignity.org). The views expressed here are
the authors alone.
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