Farming for a Cause, in the Bronx"I asked what he was doing, and he said, 'A community garden,' and I said, 'Can I help?'"
Growing up in the Jacob Riis Houses, a dense public housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Karen Washington used to dream of living on a farm — cows and all. The closest she ever came was in the mid-1980s, when she took her chances on a developer's offer to lure middle-class residents to the Bronx with new single-family homes.
"I had this huge backyard, and the first thing I did was I wanted to start growing food," Washington recalls. "So bit by bit, I started changing that soil. I started composting. I went to the library and started getting books on how to grow vegetables. And so for three years I started growing food in my backyard."
It was a small slice of the American dream for a single mother of two. But that dream threatened to become a nightmare when the developer abandoned the project, leaving an empty lot across the street. Washington would wake up every morning to find the lot littered with tires, mattresses — all manner of garbage that people would dump overnight. Until one day, she spotted a man standing by the lot with a pick and a shovel.
"I asked what he was doing, and he said, 'A community garden,' and I said, 'Can I help?'" Washington says. Named the Garden of Happiness, it became the first project completed under The New York Botanical Garden's Bronx Green-Up program.
Little did Washington know that gardening and farming would draw her into a life of grass-roots community activism. Her latest fight is for food justice — a community's right to grow, sell and eat healthful food. As a physical therapist for the past 34 years, she has seen firsthand what the lack of access to fresh, nutritious food has wrought on her community. Years ago, she mostly treated people with total-hip or total-knee replacements. But that changed. "The patients I was starting to see were strokes, cardiac, amputations because of diabetes," she says. "In my patients' homes I saw the processed foods, the packaged foods, the canned foods. Hardly any vegetables. Something had to be done."
When she and others tried to establish farmers markets in the neighborhood, they were met with resistance. "The reply was, 'Well, no one wants to come to the Bronx,'" she says. "'They hear the Bronx is bad. Poor people can't afford our prices.'"
But she had no further to look than her own community garden and others like it.
Together with Just Food, a local food advocacy group, she founded La Familia Verde farmers markets. For the past seven years, the group has provided Bronx neighborhoods not only fresh produce, but food choices that are reflective of the residents' cultures.
Farms in upstate New York and on Long Island supplement what the community gardens are able to grow themselves. And they grow quite a bit: vegetables and fruits, such as tomatillos, as well as Mexican and Caribbean herbs and greens, including cilantro, papalo, collard greens and callaloo. Many of those are cultivated in Washington's own Garden of Happiness. Even some of the market's eggs are from her community garden — the one that started it all.
"The Garden of Happiness has chickens!" she says, so excited that she sings the words.
Check out Karen's New York.