One Urban Farm’s Impact on Health and Well-Being in New York City
Nina Zorfass, IIN Content Editor
What is urban farming?
Urban farming, or urban agriculture, is the practice of growing food commercially in an urban setting – on rooftops, landfills, or any cleared area within a city. Urban farms provide food to be sold to farmers’ markets, soup kitchens, restaurants, and in recent cases, community relief organizations that provide food to people who have been impacted by COVID-19.
Urban farms are capable of producing a lot of food! GrowNYC’s Teaching Garden, a one-acre farm on Governors Island in New York City, is on track to grow almost 20,000 pounds of fresh food this season, a lot of which has been given to neighborhood groups providing food to those hit hardest during the pandemic, such as in the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn.
Urban farms are incredibly beneficial for public health as they provide not just an abundance of nutritious, whole, plant-based foods, but also opportunities for physical activity, enhancing mental health through working in nature, fostering food security (especially during times of crisis), improving air quality, and cultivating a sense of belonging within communities.
An interview with an urban farm manager in NYC
Urban farms have been sources of fresh food for neighborhoods that don’t otherwise have access well before this current pandemic. The systemic factors that contribute to this lack of access have reinforced cycles of poverty and poor health and in part have caused the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on these communities.
WhyHunger, IIN’s charitable partner, is on a mission to resolve these systemic factors – racial, social, economic, and environmental injustices – to advance the human right to nutritious food by providing resources to organizations, including urban farms. They support an urban farm in the South Bronx, La Finca Del Sur, which is working toward this mission with the help of their farm manager, Frances A. Perez-Rodriguez. We had the opportunity to speak with Frances about how she got involved in urban farming, how Health Coaches can contribute to resolving these injustices, and how you can get involved today.
IIN: You were born in Puerto Rico and grew up in New York City. What was growing up in NYC like for you? Did you have personal experiences with urban agriculture while you were growing up?
Frances: I loved growing up in the city – I’m from the South Bronx and still live in New York City. There was a lot of running around, spending time with family and prioritizing school. I didn’t grow up around agriculture and sometimes wonder how it would’ve altered my life path to have been introduced to community gardens and freedom fighters earlier on.
IIN: What drew you to urban farming?
Frances: In my early 20s, an interest in herbal medicine led me to want to reconnect with the land and learn to grow food. Urban farming is our main option here (in the South Bronx) if we want access to fresh food. It’s inspiring to learn and follow in the footsteps of so many folks who took to community gardening here in the 1970s, reclaiming space and doing good for ourselves and the community. We are resilient. Why wouldn’t anyone reclaim a space to grow food and medicine if they had the capacity?
IIN: You mentioned “reclaiming space” for your community. We can’t talk about urban farming without also talking about race, racism, and food injustice. How did all this come together for you to decide that urban farming would be your medium for tackling these important issues?
Frances: I was learning about the history of the United States around the time that Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, two Black teenagers, were murdered. I was also reading an autobiography on Assata Shakur, a Black social activist, and the Parable series by Octavia Butler, a Black science-fiction writer. I was also participating in trainings, “Know Your Rights” and “Cop Watch,” when everything just clicked.
I wanted to remember who we, as BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color), were, outside all forms of oppression, as our true and best selves. That translates into the practice of urban farming; growing food that is not only nourishing and crucial for our health, but food that’s also seasonal and culturally appropriate, aiding our communities in feeling seen and heard through their food.
IIN: In your powerful interview with Karen Washington, cofounder of the women-led sustainable farm Rise & Root, you speak about the impact systemic racism has on how the food system allocates food, and why calling a neighborhood a “food desert” instead of saying it is experiencing “food apartheid” is an injustice in itself. Can you elaborate on why “food apartheid” is a better term for what is happening, and how urban farms are part of the solution to providing access to quality food?
Frances: “Food desert” isn’t the right term because there’s food in the desert! I’ve grown to hate this term; it is so human-centric. The desert, in its natural form, is a thriving ecosystem that has sustained plants, animals, and humans for centuries. This is not to say that there isn’t food where folks suffer from food insecurity – that’s the thing! The issue is that we mainly have access to a lot of processed, fast, and/or “not-alive” foods.
Using the term “food apartheid” forces us to recognize that food insecurity is systemic and intentional. Black and brown, poor communities don’t have less fresh food options just because. There is a reason for it, and both community gardens and urban farms are a solution to bringing in those fresh food options.
IIN: You mentioned “food insecurity” and how the food accessible in certain neighborhoods is often fast food or processed, which does not promote health. What about the term “food sovereignty”? Why is it important as it relates to resolving injustice of all kinds (racial, social, economic, and environmental)? Where does urban farming fit in?
Frances: Food sovereignty is “the right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems... [putting] those who produce, distribute, and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies, rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”
Food sovereignty is the real change we need, which is where urban farming comes in. It puts the power in the people’s hands – our hands – and out of the hands of major corporations, politicians, etc. It’s a complete overhaul of the structure of our food system. It’s much more than just the food we eat; it encompasses where our food comes from, the types of seeds and crops we want to prioritize, and the conditions in which food and medicine are grown.
How is it that the people who grow, harvest, process, distribute, sell, eat, cook, and compost our foods have such little say? Food justice is just a step toward full sovereignty.
IIN: How did you start your work with La Finca Del Sur community farm?
Frances: I joined La Finca Del Sur community farm because it was close to my workplace and centered the leadership and work of Black women and Latinas. It’s such a beautiful space with folks of all ages, and I’ve learned so much – not only about urban farming but about community organizing and the importance of creating culturally relevant programming for and by our own community members.
After graduating from Farm School NYC and having the experience of a few years of membership, I applied for the farm manager position for 2019’s growing season. I feel I am a better person for joining this community.
IIN: Can you share more about the programs the farm runs and what your operations are like year-round, and especially now? How is the produce grown at the farm distributed to the local communities?
Frances: La Finca Del Sur has an intergenerational membership of over 20 people. The farm is split so that the front half consists of communal plots and the back half is member beds. Food and medicine grown in communal plots is traditionally sold at the South Bronx Farmers’ Market (about a 10-minute walk from the space) as well as on-site. Members pay an annual fee, which goes toward farm supplies, use of a bed, and growing what they wish for themselves and their families.
We've been transitioning into partnering with local groups and organizations so that they can harvest with us and distribute produce and medicine to their members/participants on their terms. This interest has intensified now that we're experiencing COVID-19, and it is also what's driving us currently to partner with our sister farms and gardens nearby to combine what we're growing. This allows us to share the work of providing produce bags to specific and pre-chosen food insecure and vulnerable groups near us.
Just before the colder months, we typically “put the farm to sleep” by doing a major cleanup and planting cover crops to nourish the soil.
IIN: What do people get wrong about urban farming? Are there misconceptions surrounding the work that you find yourself clarifying often?
Frances: I find often that folks think it’s just a hobby; that actual food and medicine cannot be grown for real sustenance through urban farming. A lot of “You grow food? Here? There’s a farm? Here???” The answer is yes, over and over. We also often have to explain that farms don’t always have cows and sheep; our animals are insects and birds, and the occasional rodent.
IIN: We here at IIN train people to become Health Coaches. They guide clients on how to improve their health holistically; it’s not just about the food – but the relationships, spirituality, career, environment, and everything else that fulfills and nourishes them. How can Health Coaches help contribute to this greater conversation and work on resolving hunger and injustice in the food system?
Frances: Health Coaches can support folks in thinking about where their food comes from. Is it possible to eat seasonally and shop locally, while supporting farmers nearby and minimizing your carbon footprint? Maybe Health Coaches can also introduce people to the concept of growing food at home.
It’s empowering and therapeutic to work with plants, and more healing will come from consuming that which is grown. Getting out into nature and being able to enjoy the produce that you helped grow is such a powerful experience.
Political education is also very much needed. How can Health Coaches learn more about the interconnections between food, health, climate change, and systemic racism to better inform clients?
IIN: For those interested, what’s the best way to get involved?
Frances: My best advice is:
- Start small and keep it simple.
- Be thankful for the voice within that’s urging you to reconnect with the land. Be sure to listen to that voice.
- Ask a lot of questions. Think about how you can and want to help, while recognizing the privileges you may hold. There are so many roles to fill – where and how can your skills be utilized?
- Join a local community garden.
- Does your neighborhood have a community fridge? Can you donate produce to it or start your own?
- Watch the Winona LaDuke TedTalk.
- If all you can do is redistribute funds (donating money), do so!
IIN’s mission is to play a crucial role in improving health and happiness and, in doing so, spread a ripple effect that transforms the world. Accomplishing this larger mission starts at home, in our own communities. The work that WhyHunger and La Finca Del Sur are doing is essential to ensuring people have access to health resources, which includes fresh nutritious food, and IIN is honored to be able to spread awareness of their work. If you’re interested in getting involved with WhyHunger, learn more here. Also, be sure to check out Woke Foods, a food service and food justice cooperative owned and run by four women of color, including Frances! They're currently providing weekly plant-based meals in the South Bronx.