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April 2016 Grants News 

A Service Project Takes Root on Urban Farms

The Trust invests $750,000 to grow produce and train public housing residents to work the land

GROUNDWORK: Green City Force corps member Osvaldo Martinez (above) picks Swiss chard outside Red Hook West Houses. Last year more than 2,900 pounds of organic produce was harvested from this site. Photo by Robin Dahlberg

If there’s a most unlikely place for a farm, it’s probably in the shadow of 14-story brick buildings that make up Brooklyn’s largest public housing development, which includes Red Hook West. Yet there, within a cherry tomato’s throw of its 900 residents, is a one-acre plot bursting in summer with eggplants, kale, and peppers. 

This is part of a citywide effort to bring urban farming on a large scale to New York City public housing, training young residents in sustainability while providing local produce. The goal is to create more of these farms in coming years.

As it happens, New York City Housing Authority has lots of open space: Its 328 developments take up nearly 2,500 acres—three times the size of Central Park. And with about 400,000 residents, it has a larger population than Minneapolis or Cleveland.

The farms are the brainchild of three groups: the housing authority, a nonprofit called Added Value, and Green City Force, a federally funded program that prepares young men and women for careers in energy efficiency and urban agriculture. They must live in public housing and be high school graduates or have an equivalency diploma. Those accepted to the program get 10 months’ training, preparing for careers with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the City Department of Environmental Protection, and others.

We’ve just made a large grant to this work—$750,000 for the next three years—to help start five more of these urban farms. “This crosses the traditional boundaries of philanthropy,” says Natasha Lifton, our senior program officer for children, youth, and families. “It involves youth development, access to healthy food, and preserving open space.” She notes that participants also get “soft skills” training to prepare them to deal with bosses and co-workers. Those who finish the program get an AmeriCorps scholarship of about $5,700 to continue their studies.

“We’re helping to transform abandoned spaces into hubs of positive activity across the City,” Lifton says.

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