In the middle of Harlem on a derelict plot of land where old men used to play cards, with no kids allowed, is growing one of the most exciting social projects I’ve seen this year. Harlem kids that were eating Twix bars for lunch are now eating fresh greens –– food that they and their mothers are growing through a non-profit project called Harlem Grown.
Latonya Assanah from Harlem, New York (pictured above) has an 8-year-old daughter who just “wouldn’t eat green things.”
That is –- until her daughter started growing food on water: A couple of years ago Nevaeh Seeley started tending to the hydroponic garden across the street from her school in Harlem. It used to be lunchtime and that meant “junk food from the candy store, now she and her friends are waiting for the greens,” Assanah her mom tells Green Prophet.
Just look around: from the exotic mustard greens to dwarf kale and koji: “These are things you can’t find in the grocery store. I bring this food home to my mother, originally from Ghana – it’s us three girls, and she is so excited. My mom told me she used to grow greens like this in Ghana where she comes from, and knows exactly what to do with them.”
So it started out with curiosity, but today Assanah is the greenhouse manager, working days at the high-tech farm, which feeds 150 local Harlem families. It is part of the Harlem Grown non-profit farm. The farm stands on what was 4 brownstone houses in the middle of the city.
On one side the students grow food on raised beds –- raised to protect the food from heavy metals, asbestos and soil contaminants that penetrates soil after a demolition. The other is where Assanah runs the hydroponic farm.
Both sides of the farm feed people –– but just as importantly nourishes local brains and souls.
Case in point: Assanah sings to her plants when she comes into work in the morning. She demonstrates to me: “Good morning plants I am here!”
The job she got because she was hanging out in the hydroponic greenhouse helping the kids. Assanah plants seeds, transplants seedlings, feeds the plants nutrients into a large water reservoir and tests the water daily to make sure the pH is right.
Above – Harlem Grown founder Tony Hillery with school girls.
Assanah and the kids learn much more than growing food. Hydroponics at schools is an excellent way to teach kids, especially girls, essentials about STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Hydroponic farming is as much about chemistry, ratios and the physics of water movement as it is about having a green thumb.
The approach called hydroponics uses less water, and can produce an acre’s worth of food in a small greenhouse because greens can grow densely when nutrient rich water is delivered right to the plants’ roots. It is also used by NASA to grow food in outer space. So why not young girls and their moms in Harlem?
Below is Lydia. She’s the farm manager and right hand woman to Tony Hillery, who founded Harlem Grown 4 years ago. She helps runs a summer camp at the farm, makes sure plants and people are being tended to at all times.
Some 1800 pounds of produce that they measured was grown on the farm last year, she reports. Part of it gets sold to keep the farm running, but the idea is really to feed people, and provide youth development, Nebel tells Green Prophet.
So that 1800 pounds – that’s just what they were able to weigh, as more than twice that amount was likely eaten – from the hands of babes right to their mouths, local, organic and green. This thought makes Lydia smile as she heads over to the farm’s second largest location which has sprouted up over on 126th Street in Harlem, just down the road.
Harlem Grown and Hillery’s vision is growing like weeds, to 6 locations with more planned for the next year.
For more on how Harlem Grown is changing lives through urban farming, see Harlem Grown website.