Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Growing a Sustainable Food System in the Bronx

In the midst of growing national and international discussions about the intersection of food, health, and the environment, and just days before the People’s Climate March, the Bronx Health REACH quarterly coalition meeting on September 19th featured a dynamic panel discussion on local agriculture and sustainable farming. The group of panelists included representatives from community gardening organizations and local agriculture initiatives, such as La Finca del Sur, NY Sun Works, Corbin Hill Food Project, South Bronx Farmers Markets, The Partnership for a Healthier Manhattan at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and the Office of Council Member Ritchie Torres. Although the Bronx has been consistently ranked 62 out of 62 counties in New York State, this panel demonstrated that there are many innovative projects underway that should be recognized, replicated, and expanded.

The panel was moderated by Tanya Fields—the renowned food activist and founder of the BLK Projek, which uses food to create economic development opportunities in the South Bronx. Fields’ work to promote locally farmed and accessible food within her community has included the Hunt’s Point Farm Share, the Libertad Urban Farm Project, the Veggie Mobile Market, and many other programs. Fields strives not only to support and expand local farming opportunities, but to use healthy food and sustainable gardening as a tool to empower women and youth in marginalized communities. Similarly, La Finca del Sur focuses on economic development and food justice through urban farming, led primarily by Latina and Black women. In addition to their community garden site, produce from La Finca del Sur is sold at the South Bronx Farmers Market, where customers can use SNAP/EBT as well as HealthBucks. Sindri McDonald, Council Member Ritchie Torres’Chief of Staff, spoke about Council Member Torres’ efforts to expand the distribution and use of HealthBucks within his district to make local fruits and vegetables more accessible to his constituents. Council Member Torres allocated $10,000 in discretionary funding for HealthBucks. A historic first. No council member before him  had ever  allocated funding for this program. We hope that this represents a trend where more Council Members will see this as an important enough initiative to secure funding for it.. Finally, the Corbin Hill Food Project provides an alternative to the farmers’ market model with their local farm share program. Local, sustainably grown produce is available at 20 delivery sites throughout Washington Heights, the Bronx, and Harlem, with reduced-price shares for those using SNAP and flexible payment options. This option is convenient for local residents who want fresh, healthy produce but either can’t or don’t want to shop at farmer’s markets. It’s important to develop more programs that not only make fresh, high quality food financially accessible in lower-income communities, but physically convenient and attractive for customers as well. Picking up a package of fruits and vegetables for the week from a local delivery site is appealing for many community residents, so much so that there is even a long waiting list of people who would like to become members.
Irrespective of the approach, all the panelists recognized the symbiotic relationship between the wellbeing of those who consume their products and the wellbeing of the earth. Not only is conventional, industrial agriculture environmentally damaging, but it does little to support local farmers or to empower consumers to play an active role in their food system. The fact that so many organizations and individuals in the Bronx recognize this connection and are mobilizing their community members to get involved in local, sustainable agriculture initiatives is what made this panel particularly inspiring. Since the panelists were representing largely grassroots organizations in the Bronx, there is clearly already some investment among community members in building  a healthy, local food environment from within. With buy-in from local residents and support from their legislative officials, it is likely that this food movement will lead to sustainable change.
Another theme of the event was the focus on changing habits within the younger generation to foster healthier lifestyles among children and youth. As Tanya Fields noted, “It’s easier to create whole children than to fix broken men.” The efforts of NY Sun Works to bring hydroponics and agricultural education to school classrooms, and the kids’ activities and workshops hosted by La Finca del Sur are just a few examples of local healthy food initiatives involving youth. Innovative projects, which include hydroponic plantings and rooftop gardens, represent  critical tools for advancing local food production in districts that lack readily available resources.
Overall, the sustained success of these important local farming programs will depend partially on funding opportunities, but also on the collaboration between local partners in the Bronx and their ability to cooperatively pool resources to serve their community. Last week, the USDA released some encouraging news on that front: $52 million of funding will go towards supporting local and regional food systems and organic farming. Importantly, the USDA will also put $30 million into marketing for farmers markets and promoting locally grown produce. This new funding is an important step towards building a stronger support system for local producers and consumers alike. Hopefully this is just the beginning of increasing government efforts to strengthen local agriculture networks in the Bronx and across the country. To read about the USDA announcement, please click here.  
Rachel Manning is a Community HealthCorps member with Bronx Health REACH. 

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