Growing Food & Urban Farmers

On an eye-wateringly bright February afternoon, when new-fallen snow blankets raised vegetable beds and perennial borders eight inches deep, a New England gardener’s thoughts turn to seed catalogs and spring. What kind of cucumber will it be this year, the Suyo Long or the Tasty Jade? Borage would be beautiful, but will it bolt?

Such speculations are, for anyone whose yard is frozen solid, an exercise in fantasy, but they’re even more fanciful in New Haven’s downtrodden Hill neighborhood, where heavy metals contaminate the earth, sprung mattresses and bald tires punctuate vacant lots and some teenagers have tasted only half a dozen different fresh vegetables in their lives. But it’s exactly here, in those forlorn lots, where fresh greensJustin Freiberg, farmer-in-chief of the Urban Foodshed Collaborative and a second-year student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, wants to plant. Or, to be more exact, to train a cadre of inner-city youth to plant, tend and then sell their homegrown bounty to local restaurants.

The Foodshed got under way last summer. “We spent days pulling out chest-high mugwort here,” Freiberg reports, kicking into the snow of a chain-link-circled lot on Stevens Street with the toe of his hiking boot. After clearing the weeds and bringing in decent soil, in went the seeds of basil, mizuna and tomatillos. Freiberg bends to pluck some dried brown pods from a brittle stem; inside are mustard-colored seeds the size of black-eyed peas. “Marfax beans,” he said, handing me a few. “They’re an heirloom variety native to New England.” Not everything he and the four neighborhood teenagers grew was popular: the Mexican herb epazote bewildered neighbors of Puerto Rican descent, but “sometimes I got it right,” Freiberg said. “Collard greens were a big hit.”

Growing food in cities—whether on rooftops, in alleys or in the shadows of government buildings—has recently developed considerable enviro-hippie crossover cachet. Michelle Obama has her White House kitchen garden; the Department of Agriculture has one too. Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Kingston (N.Y.) and Portland (Ore.) have vegetable plots near their city halls. Manhattan’s borough president has prioritized the sustainability of New York City’s food system; city children nationwide nibble from their school gardens; and Will Allen won a MacArthur Award for devising systems to grow massive amounts of food (and fish) on a two-acre lot just a stone’s throw from Milwaukee’s largest public housing complex. Wary of industrial agriculture, the most entrepreneurial urban dwellers, in addition to tending their own gardens, are learning to butcher meat and can their summer bounty and are agitating to loosen rules on keeping chickens, rabbits and bees.

New Haven, though not yet a station on the foodie cross, has numerous sustainability-themed restaurants and cafés, and it supports four farmers’ markets, one of which operates year-round. (The state of Connecticut has more than 100 markets, up from 22 two decades ago.) They feature the usual vegetal bounty, as well as locally produced honey, jams, milk, cheese, pasture-raised meats, sustainably harvested seafood, baked goods, maple syrup, flowers, eggs and wool. Yale has aimed to ensure that 40 percent of the 11,000 meals it serves each day are “sustainable” (if not local, then “eco-sensitive,” humane and produced under fair working conditions). The one-acre Yale Farm on Edwards Street funnels greens into Yale Catering and also sells produce at the Wooster Square Farmers’ Market. And according to Melissa Goodall, assistant director of Yale’s Office of Sustainability, “every year students at F&ES request a more food-oriented curriculum.”

“The demand for locally grown food, whether from restaurants or markets, is far larger than the supply,” said Freiberg during a tour of another one of his sleeping plots on Davenport Avenue. But who’s going to grow all that food, and where? Freiberg started by poring over city maps. He noted hundreds of so-called sliver lots, oddly shaped and undevelopable spaces between buildings and curbs. And then he looked at census data, which indicated grocery and specialty food stores. By overlaying these maps, he said, “I realized the slivers are in poor neighborhoods, and they’re mostly in food deserts,” where there is little access to fresh fruits and vegetables. He noted, too, that teenagers in these neighborhoods had few opportunities for decent jobs paying a decent wage.

“The food movement is growing, but teens have been left out of the equation,” he said. “The idea of the Foodshed is to connect with teens by signing them up to be entrepreneurs.” He would secure the space and provide the tools and training to plant gardens; and Youth at Work, a summer employment program that partners with more than 80 organizations and businesses, would pay his employees through the Urban Resources Initiative, a nonprofit that acted as fiscal sponsor.

“We liked Justin’s project because it was community-based,” said Gwendolyn Busch, program manager for Youth at Work. “With Obama, kids hear constantly about the push for green jobs. Justin shows them what that means.”

* * *

On the Foodshed’s first official day in June 2009, Freiberg waited eagerly for his teenagers with a film crew he’d brought up from New York to document the project. He’d also brought in a drummer. “I thought a drumming circle would be a bonding experience,” he said. But the boys didn’t show up for two hours, confused about the address. Next, two girls he’d hired quit. They said the work was too hard. Finally under way with four young men, none of whom had gardened before, the team cleared and planted four lots, but not before knocking down an alimentary barrier.

“New Haven is not where food comes from,” they warned their boss as he gobbled volunteer raspberries in one of their plots. “They thought the city was dirty,” Freiberg said, “and they were worried about eating food that didn’t come in a package.” (New Haven’s industrial past lingers in the Hill’s soil, which has high lead and cadmium levels. The Foodshed plants its seeds in raised beds of imported soil enhanced with healthy compost.)

The team labored five hours a day, five days a week, for minimum wage. Four of those days they gardened; on the fifth, Freiberg gave them cooking lessons. “I was bringing healthy food for my lunch, but it was within their universe—chicken with pesto, for example.” The boys didn’t know what pesto was, but they grew to like it. “And so we learned how to make it at Chabaso Bakery,” Freiberg said.

Already, the Foodshed was growing about a fifth of an acre of basil on a James Street plot owned by Chabaso’s founders, Charlie and Nancy Negaro. “Justin came to me because he was looking for space to grow,” said Nancy. “He wanted to give kids a skill so they could make money selling food rather than, say, drugs. And he wanted to teach them nutrition and give them a sense of food from beginning to end.” A former teacher, she was impressed with the way Freiberg related to the young men. “He was so patient with them, and they were so proud of what they’d learned, and so excited.”

Chris Prokop, a co-founder of the Davenport community garden, has seen many well-meaning grad students come through the neighborhood with community projects. “But Justin is the first to take something to this level, teaching people where food comes from and how to plant, grow, harvest and distribute it. He’s open and not over-controlling; he broke down barriers and defenses.”

After perfecting their pesto, Freiberg and the boys delivered a batch to Atticus Bookstore/Café, owned by the Negaros. Freiberg said, “The manager told me, ‘If I could show your faces and tell your story, the price would be worth it to me. If you can grow x amount, I’d buy it all.’” The pesto would be spread on $9 sandwiches.

Surely Atticus can source tasty pesto from any number of places within locavore range, each of which has a positive and possibly heart-warming story. But the story of the Foodshed’s pesto has a twist. “Our story isn’t like Stone Barns’: ‘We’re saving farmland,’” Freiberg said. (Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is a nonprofit educational center with a high-end restaurant located in Westchester County.) “Our story is New Haven-centric; it’s about community engagement and vitalization.”

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