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Sheryll Durrant. Photo credit: Keka Marzagao / Sustainable Flatbush

Urban Farmer Transforms Community Into Thriving Local Food Haven

By Melissa Denchak

Most people don't move to New York City and become farmers. Sheryll Durrant certainly wasn't planning to when she left Jamaica for Manhattan in 1989. She got her undergraduate degree in business from the City University of New York's Baruch College and spent the next 20 years in marketing. Then, when the 2008 financial crisis hit, Durrant decided to leave her job and try something new: volunteering at a community garden in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

It wasn't exactly uncharted terrain for this farmer's daughter. Growing up in Kingston, Durrant regularly helped her parents harvest homegrown fruits and vegetables. "But it didn't dawn on me that that was what I wanted to do," she said. Volunteering in the Brooklyn garden reminded her of her roots. "I would plant flowers or melons and that sense of putting your hand in the soil and becoming a part of that green space flooded back to me," she explained.

Kelly Street Garden.Craig Warga

Fast-forward to today. Durrant is a leader in New York's flourishing urban farming movement, which includes more than 600 community gardens under the city's GreenThumb program, plus hundreds more run by other groups across the five boroughs. A food justice advocate with a certificate from Farm School NYC, she's also a "master composter" and a community garden educator and she does outreach work for Farming Concrete, a data collection project that measures, among other things, how much urban farms and gardens produce.

Durrant's early work at the Sustainable Flatbush garden taught her the crucial first step in initiating any community project: Know your neighborhood's needs.

"We started by asking people in the community, 'What do you want to see?,'" she said. This market-research approach turned out to serve her goals—and her neighbors—well. When community members, many of whom were immigrants, expressed a desire to grow the plants and herbs of their native countries, Durrant and her fellow green thumbs collaborated with a local apothecary to establish a medicinal and culinary herb garden and to organize free workshops on how to use the herbs. These garden sessions—which covered women's and children's health, eldercare, and mental health issues like depression—at times drew more than 100 attendees.

After Brooklyn, Durrant relocated to the South Bronx, a neighborhood that's notoriously polluted, underserved and disproportionately malnourished, with more than one in five residents considered food insecure. The borough's gardens, said Durrant, help fill a void, serving as "one way we can bring fresh fruit and vegetables to a community that doesn't normally have access."

At the Kelly Street Garden, a 2,500-square-foot space on the grounds of an affordable housing complex, she serves as garden manager. And at the International Rescue Committee's New Roots Community Farm, a half-acre garden whose members include resettled refugees from countries like Myanmar and the Central African Republic, she works as a seasonal farm coordinator.

Keka Marzagao / Sustainable Flatbush

Last year, the Kelly Street Garden produced 1,200 pounds of food, available to anyone in the community who volunteered at the garden (and even those who didn't), free of cost. It was one of the few purveyors of healthy food in the neighborhood, where local stores often carry produce that's neither affordable nor fresh, due to lack of turnover. "If I have a limited amount of income, why would I waste my money or benefits on food that is going to perish in no time—that's already rotted when I get there?" Durrant said. For this reason, she explained, people often resort to purchasing processed foods that come in cans and bags. The longer shelf life stretches a tight budget. It also demonstrates why hunger often goes hand in hand with obesity—a problem particularly prevalent in the Bronx.

"I'm not going to say that community gardens and urban farms can feed New York City. Please, it's a city with over eight million people," Durrant said. "But they can provide some relief." What's more, she added, "They give you access to grow the food you want. That's where the food justice part comes in."

Margaret Brown, a Natural Resources Defense Council staff attorney who works on food justice issues, echoes Durrant's words. "One garden isn't going to fix hunger in your neighborhood, but community gardens are a way for people to take ownership over the food system in a very tangible way."

Of course, community gardens give rise to much more than fruits and vegetables. Durrant explained that the Kelly Street Garden serves as a space for cooking workshops and on-site art projects and hosts its own farmers' market. Meanwhile, the New Roots Community Farm has helped some of its neighborhood's newest arrivals find one another. "It's a means of engagement that a lot of our refugees are familiar with," she said. "It's welcoming, safe and a place where people can learn at their own pace and get involved in the country where they now live." Participants practice English ("Food is an incredible tool to teach English—a great entry point," said Durrant); plant hot peppers, mustard greens, melons and other edibles from their native homes; and exchange recipes.

Keka Marzagao / Sustainable Flatbush

Urban gardens also play a role in nutrition education. "Anecdotally, we've seen that when kids go to a community garden and get exposed to fresh fruits and veggies, they're much more likely to eat them when they're offered on the school lunch line, salad bar, or at home," Brown said.

Perhaps most important, the community garden movement and its focus on food inequities help advocates raise awareness of broader, interconnected environmental justice issues—like low wages and lack of affordable housing—that get to the heart of why people struggle to access healthy food to begin with. "Community gardens form a good space for people to come together around those issues," Brown said, "and hopefully find great organizing allies."

Durrant is clearly one of them. As part of her community outreach work, she arranges events to bring new audiences (whether corporate employees on volunteer workdays, or visitors on a Bronx Food & Farm Tour) directly through the garden gates. These visitors get a glimpse of the power of a small green lot in a sea of concrete—and if they're lucky, they leave with a taste of it, too.

Melissa Denchak is a freelance writer and editor, and has contributed to Fine Cooking, Adventure Travel, and Departures. She has a culinary diploma from New York City's Institute of Culinary Education and loves writing stories about food.

More than 80 types of crops are currently being grown at Bowery's New Jersey farm. Photo credit: Bowery

'World's First Post-Organic Produce' Grows at This Vertical Farm

A New Jersey farm is growing leafy greens such as baby kale, arugula, butterhead lettuce and basil all year round without pesticides, soil or even sunshine.

Bowery, a high-tech vertical farm in the town of Kearny, claims to grow "the world's first post-organic produce." The company officially launched Feb. 23 after two years of planning and development.

Like many other vertical farms, Bowery's crops grow indoors in stacked rows under LED lights that mimic the sun's rays and get nourished by nutrient-filled, recirculating water.

But what makes Bowery's operation unique is its proprietary FarmOS technology that can detect peak times for harvest and learns what the crops need to thrive, thus eliminating a lot of guesswork that's usually involved with planting food.

Co-founder and CEO Irving Fain explained in a blog post how the fully integrated software system works:

"FarmOS uses data from multiple sources, including vision systems, along with machine learning to monitor plants and all the variables that drive their growth, quality, and flavor, from germination to harvest. This yields insight into what each crop needs, rather than relying on instinct. By monitoring the growing process 24/7 and capturing large amounts of data along the way, we can constantly iterate on each varietal, tweak flavor profiles, provide each crop exactly what it needs to thrive, and harvest at the exact right time. This means better produce all year round."

Fain listed several other advantages to the Bowery system:

0 pesticides - Our controlled indoor environment allows us to grow the purest produce imaginable, with absolutely no pesticides or chemicals. Bowery produce is so clean, you don't even have to wash it.

95% less water - We give our crops exactly what they need and nothing more. Nutrients get precisely delivered via purified water—not a single drop is wasted along the way.

100x+ more productive - By planting in vertical rows and growing twice as fast as traditional agriculture, our farms can be more more productive on the same footprint of land compared with traditional farms.

365 days a year - Growing indoors with LED lights that mimic the full spectrum of the sun means we can grow independent of seasonality or weather conditions. In the future, this will mean perfect, local produce available in New York and other cities in the dead of winter.

Same day harvest to store - Because our farms are located close to the communities they serve, Bowery produce reaches stores and restaurants within one day—unlike traditional produce, which can take weeks or even months.

According to FoodTank, more than 80 types of crops are currently being grown at the company's farm.

The Bowery team believes its model can help address the food needs of the planet's rapidly growing population, which is estimated to balloon to 9-10 billion people by 2050. By then we will need up to 70 percent more food to feed all those mouths.

Fain also pointed out that today's agricultural system has wreaked havoc on the environment and drained precious resources.

"Today our nation depends on cheap, mass-produced food, sacrificing quality for quantity at the expense of our health and the environment," he wrote. "Agriculture now consumes 70 percent of the world's accessible water and 700 million pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. alone each year."

Another reason that operations like Bowery are important is that the world's population is increasingly urban. Today, 54 percent of the world's population lives in urban areas and will grow to 66 percent by 2050. With its location in Kearny, Bowery is less than 10 miles away from New York City, meaning produce can be plucked and packaged and on its way to the Big Apple in a day.

"We have to re-think what agriculture looks like in a world where water is scarce, people live in cities, and we're waking up to the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals in our food," Fain wrote. "If we can marry the honesty, quality, and precision of the best small providers with the scale of modern agricultural operations, we can change our food system for the better."

Its products can already be found in New York City establishments such as Tom Colicchio's restaurants Craft and Fowler & Wells and select Foragers stores. This month, it will expand to select tristate Whole Foods Markets.

Bowery's packaged greens start at $3.49, a price that's "equal to or lower than equivalent produce grown in the field," Fain wrote, adding that as the company continues to grow, "economies of scale will only drive this price down, making better food more accessible to more people."

Bowery, which recently raised $7.5 million in venture funding, says its scalable model can be replicated in other urban areas and the company is already working at planning their next farm.

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Connecting Health and Hunger in Brooklyn and Beyond

Hunger and food insecurity affect more than 1 in 7 Americans. Those facing hunger are three times more likely to have diet-related health problems like diabetes or hypertension. Yet, far too often the solutions to help these individuals typically offered, funded and advocated for by our society address the issues of hunger and health as separate afflictions.

WhyHunger is a global grassroots support organization working with community leaders and grassroots organizations across the U.S. who are working at the intersections of health and hunger to address the complex and interconnected social determinants that leave far too many Americans hungry and sick.

We're excited to share this video from WhyHunger highlighting the innovative programs at Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger in Far Rockaway, New York, where VeggieRX programs, community farm stands, mobile pantries serving farm fresh produce and youth leadership programs intersect.

Sam Josephs, a youth leader in the Green Teens Program, serves as a mentor to her peers on the urban farm. She said, "Here in Rockaway, you don't have access to the things that you need … When you have a farm, you're producing your own food, you're watching out for your own health." Sam's testimony speaks to the value of programs like this and the importance of local, community-controlled food systems in fighting diet related illnesses.

Watch this inspiring video to learn more about Sam and BSCAH's programs:

Thank you Sam and Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger for the work that you do and for sharing this story with us!

Urban Farming Is Revolutionizing Our Cities

Humans are fast becoming city dwellers. According to the United Nations, "The urban population of the world has grown rapidly from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014."

Sixty-six percent of us will likely live in urban environments by 2050. The number of mega-cities (more than 10 million inhabitants) is also skyrocketing, from 10 in 1990 to 28 in 2014—home to more than 453 million people—and is expected to grow to 41 by 2030.

Incorporating food production into ever-expanding urban areas makes cities more livable and enhances the natural systems that keep us alive and healthy.

Along with concerns about climate change and the distances much of our food travels from farm to plate, that's spurred a renewed interest in producing food where people live. Urban agriculture won't resolve all food production and distribution problems, but it could help take pressure off rural land while providing other advantages. From balcony, backyard, rooftop, indoor and community gardens to city beehives and chicken coops to larger urban farms and farmers markets, growing and distributing local food in or near cities is a healthy way to help the environment.

And it's much more. As writer and former Vancouver city councillor Peter Ladner (also a David Suzuki Foundation board member) writes in The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities, "When urban agriculture flourishes, our children are healthier and smarter about what they eat, fewer people are hungry, more local jobs are created, local economies are stronger, our neighborhoods are greener and safer, and our communities are more inclusive."

Local and urban agriculture can also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and recycle nutrient-rich food scraps, plant debris and other "wastes." Because maintaining lawns for little more than aesthetic value requires lots of water, energy for upkeep and often pesticides and fertilizers, converting them to food gardens makes sense.

A 2016 study from the U.S. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that urban agriculture could "increase social capital, community well-being and civic engagement with the food system," as well as enhance food security, provide ecosystem services, improve health and build residents' skills. Gardening is also therapeutic.

The study found many climate benefits, including reduced emissions from transporting food; carbon sequestration by vegetation and crops; possible reduced energy, resource inputs and waste outputs; and enhanced public interest in protecting green spaces. It also noted some limitations: possible increases in greenhouse gas emissions and water use "if plants are grown in energy-or resource-intensive locations"; less efficiency than conventional agriculture in terms of resource use and transportation emissions; and, depending on practices, pollution from pesticide and fertilizer use. The study found urban agriculture to be positive overall, but concluded support from all levels of government is required to make it viable.

Urban agriculture isn't new. During the First and Second World Wars, Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Germany encouraged "victory gardens" to aid the war effort by reducing pressure on food systems and farms. Gardens and chicken coops appeared in yards, parks, school fields, golf courses, railway edges and vacant lots. Sheep grazed on sports fields and kept grass in check. Peter Ladner notes that, during the Second World War, the U.K. had 1.5 million allotment plots producing 10 percent of the country's food, including half its fruit and vegetables; and by war's end, more than 20 million home gardens supplied 40 percent of U.S. domestically consumed produce.

Granted, there were fewer people and more open spaces then, but it's still possible to grow a lot of food in urban areas, especially with composting and enriched soil techniques. Ladner writes that Toronto plans to supply 25 percent of its fruit and vegetable production within city limits by 2025 and a study from Michigan State University concluded Detroit could grow 70 percent of its vegetables and 40 percent of its fruit on 570 vacant lots covering 5,000 acres of city land.

One patch of Detroit land where 12 vacant houses were removed to grow food has supplied almost 200,000 kilograms of produce for 2,000 local families, provided volunteer experience to 8,000 residents and brought the area new investment and increased safety.

Cities needn't be wastelands of car-choked roads and pavement. Incorporating food production into ever-expanding urban areas makes cities more livable and enhances the natural systems that keep us alive and healthy.

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A Global Celebration of Local Food Cultures

Terra Madre

On Dec. 10, members of Slow Food and the Terra Madre network around the world will join the celebration of Terra Madre Day, Slow Food’s global day to promote good, clean and fair local food, now in its third year. More than 100,000 people in 110 countries will be taking part in festivals, dinners, exhibitions, cultural events, conferences and the numbers continue to rise.

Around Europe, many events focusing on the future of agriculture and the role of young farmers are being organized. In Romania, two events will feature public debates on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, bringing together policy makers, farmers and young people, and in the Netherlands a conference and a series of workshops for young European leaders will be taking place.

From the U.S. to the U.K., many groups are organizing fundraising dinners and lotteries to support the creation of a thousand gardens in Africa, Slow Food’s most ambitious project for the year and a focus of Terra Madre Day. Since its launch in October 2010, nearly 400 gardens have been adopted in 25 African countries. On Dec. 10, coordinators of one of these gardens in Kenya will be bringing together school children, their parents and neighbouring communities to learn about the importance of the initiative. A highlight of the day will be the preparation of foods from drought resistant crops. Read more on the Thousand Gardens in Africa project.

In Australia, Slow Food Brisbane will be focusing on food security and waste reduction. The convivium will prepare a dinner from food that has been rejected for sale to bring people’s attention to the vast quantity of food that is thrown away in the current food system.

A series of workshops on organic farming aimed at farmers, school and university students and beginner gardeners will be organized throughout Palestine in Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jenin. A similar meeting will be taking place at Al Najah University in Nablus and Tulkarem to raise awareness on food security and sustainable farming.

In Mawphlang, Meghalaya, India, an Indigenous food festival will display the food diversity of the region. Taste education and themed seminars, also aimed at young people, will be organized on the occasion.

In Figueres, Spain, 18 restaurants that have joined the KM0 campaign, that works to encourage chefs to use local products, will be participating in a competition for the best local and traditional dishes.

Children in a school in Candelaria, Cuba, will celebrate by planting trees in the school garden and will prepare a meal for farmers from the local community.

Manioc, a major staple food in developing countries and native to South America, will be the focus of the activities of two Brazilian convivia. The aim of the events is to support the production of manioc flour, which is currently at high risk due to restrictive laws on its production.

A gastronomic festival will be organized near Almaty, Kazakhstan, to celebrate the famous wild apple orchards. The last woodland areas home to the Sievers wild apple variety can be found near the city. In the past 30 years, the surface area of these woods has diminished by 20 percent and the apples are now at risk of extinction. Slow Food plays a fundamental role in the protection of this unique world heritage and will use Terra Madre Day to celebrate and promote this variety of apple.

For registered events, click here.

For more information, click here.

Urban Agriculture Study Highlights National Best Practices

Georgia Organics

The Turner Environmental Law Clinic at the Emory University School of Law, in partnership with Georgia Organics, has released one of the most comprehensive looks at urban agriculture policy in the U.S. The study provides a look at urban agriculture policies implemented by many of Sustain Lane’s top ranking sustainable cities.

Urban agriculture has become a national phenomenon as vacant lots and downsizing cities struggle to make efficient use of abandoned land, generate jobs, boost property values, promote community engagement and expand access to fresh, locally grown food. Urban agriculture can take many forms—from a community garden where multiple neighbors grow on land they share to full-scale farms that provide robust production of crops as well as educational opportunities and jobs for residents.

This report represents one of the most comprehensive, objective presentations of current urban agriculture policies being implemented across the country. Some cities have reacted in a nimble manner, creating conditions that have allowed urban food production to thrive. Other cities are struggling to identify the best mechanisms to spur urban agriculture. What is evident is that there is no one-size fits all policy to address urban agriculture. Each community needs its own nuanced approach to balance the land it has available with the needs of its residents.

Mindy Goldstein, acting director of the Turner Environmental Law Clinic, was overwhelmed at her student’s interest in this topic. “We prepared this report to highlight some of the best practices being employed across the country. Our goal is to build upon these practices and prepare recommendations that will work best for the city of Atlanta and other urban areas in the state. The clinic’s students dove right into this work. They were eager to lend their legal expertise to this exciting social re-innovation.”

Alice Rolls, executive director of Georgia Organics and member of the Atlanta Local Food Initiative, is excited about using the report to inform the organization’s work on urban agriculture issues. “It will greatly inform Georgia Organics’ advocacy efforts. Land use policy can be a powerful tool to expand agricultural activity and increase access to locally grown food. With so much momentum and innovation happening to address food deserts and improve public health, food policy is a critical piece of the puzzle in solving our food security and access issues.”

Both Ms. Rolls and Ms. Goldstein stated that the analysis will be shared with the city of Atlanta, among others, to inform the policy discussions currently happening. In 2010, the city of Atlanta announced an aggressive goal that 75 percent of residents would have access to fresh, locally grown food within 10 minutes of their homes by 2020.

For a full copy of the report, click here.

For more information, click here.

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The Turner Environmental Law Clinic provides free legal assistance to individuals, community groups, and non-profit organizations seeking to protect and restore the natural environment for the benefit of the public. Through its work, the Clinic offers students an intense, hands-on introduction to sophisticated environmental law and regulatory practice.

An outgrowth of a grower’s association established in the 1970s, Georgia Organics is a member-supported not-for-profit organization devoted to promoting sustainable foods and local farms in Georgia. A sustainable local food system is critical to the future of Georgia’s health, environment, and economy. Recognizing this vital need, Georgia Organics builds and strengthens a sustainable local food system that cultivates healthier Georgians, a cleaner environment, and stronger local economies. Georgia Organics builds supply through comprehensive grower education and outreach programs, and catalyzes demand on the consumer and business end by fostering market opportunities for local food. This combination creates powerful relationships that lead the state’s communities toward local, sustainably grown food.

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