How one urban farm is breaking down barriers to healthy food

“If we can grow food in New York City, we can grow it everywhere.”

July 5, 2019 Irene Archos
Volunteers at one of Project Eats' gardens. Eagle photo by Irene Archos
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For over a decade during the Great Recession, Linda Goode Bryant gathered research and edited segments for an independent documentary about the global food crisis, which had pushed prices so high that people with limited income faced serious barriers to access to healthy food.

After reviewing hours of film shot across the world depicting the nutrition challenges facing the urban poor, she put the camera down and turned the computer off. “What kind of world do we live in that people have to eat mud pies in order to survive?” she asked herself. That’s when the idea for Project Eats was born.

Today, Project Eats creates and maintains networks of urban farms in low-income neighborhoods around New York City without much access to fresh food. The guiding principle on these farms: small plots; high yield.

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“We should be able to grow our own food,” Bryant explains. “Food is ultimately tied to social justice. The belief behind Project Eats is that we should live healthy lives regardless of income.”

Each farm is both invested in and reflective of its surrounding community, from employees (young people and students from nearby schools), to pricing (sliding-scale), to programming (Saturday “storytelling” breakfasts and farm training).

The first site, Amboy Community Farm, launched in Brownsville in 2009. It’s now used as a production and training site, supplying produce for farm stands throughout the city. After 10 years, Project Eats has expanded its reach to include 10 urban farms across nearly five acres of land.

In a good year, the group distributes nearly 40,000 pounds of fresh, organically grown greens and vegetables to communities that would otherwise face little access and high prices.

The organization’s largest urban farm sits on a former parking lot under the shadow of the Marcus Garvey Apartments in Brownsville. Since 2014, under the care of two full-time urban farmers, the farm sprouts leafy greens in neat rows: Spinach and mustard greens, arugula and radishes, bok choy and broccolini and more provide a welcome green contrast to the red brick and gray concrete of surrounding buildings.

Located in areas often referred to as a “food deserts,” the farms become a vehicle for introducing city kids to an agrarian way of living. An after-school program employs teens and children for the summer to introduce them to sustainable food production, and, on a more basic level, invite them to interact with nature in a way that’s rare in the concrete-laden environments in which they have grown up.

The Project Eats ‘farmacy’ program, born from a 2017 partnership with Brownsville Action Health Center and Gotham Health in East New York, sought to expand urban farming from grocery shopping to health care. Doctors participating in the program prescribe fresh produce to patients — either in addition to or in place of their synthetic drugs — and the urban farm fills the prescription.

The vision Bryant conceived of back in 2008 has grown to include three farms in Brownsville and one in East New York, plus three more locations in Manhattan and Queens. The first Bronx farm is in development, as is a 10th on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Bryant, both a Guggenheim Fellow and a Peabody Award recipient, notes that just making farm-fresh greens available is not the same as increasing demand for them. The choice to use and cook fresh food is more complex than just having it readily available.

“No matter what income class you are,” she explains, “ordering Dominos is easier than preparing fresh food at home. We’ve succumbed to the incessant marketing of such convenient, readily available foods.”

But she remains optimistic about the movement. “If we can grow food in New York City, we can grow it everywhere.”

Irene Archos is an educator and a freelance writer. You can follow her work on her website

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