There's a subtle irony embedded in our current national craving for locally grown food: Cities, the antithesis of the countryside, have arguably become the easiest place to indulge in it. The rise of farmers' markets and buying clubs has transformed urban food possibilities and the economic viability of small American farmers. It's a radical shift, and one driven not by market forces or government, but by the work of a burgeoning cadre of activists from coast to coast. Driven by the belief that everyone should have access to fresh, local food, these visionaries are changing the contents of city shoppers' carts from Philadelphia's tony Society Hill to the gritty edges of Oakland, California.

A Zucchini Grows in Brooklyn - Brooklyn, NY

Every morning, while most of Brooklyn streams into Manhattan, Sarita Daftary heads the opposite direction—in more ways than one. Not only is she bound for East New York, Brooklyn, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, but to Gotham’s first official public farm.

“We’re excited about it,” says Daftary, 26, the project director for East New York Farms (ENYF), the neighborhood food and farming group overseeing the site. While ENYF has been running two sizeable food-producing gardens for years, growers were beginning to agitate for more. “We’d been looking for more land.”

Luckily for Daftary, the city’s housing agency had just finished an inventory of its available land—and was looking to turn a few parcels into open space. By late June, gardeners were showing off the spring bounty at the Hands and Hearts Garden, the half-acre plot ringed by a chain-link fence that marks New York City’s entry into public farming. To start, gardeners had tackled one-quarter of the land, heaping rich, velvety soil into rows bearing American standards like tomatoes and zucchini, as well as Caribbean favorites like amaranth and baggee (greens used in callaloo) and bitter melon.

Hands and Hearts may be a first for the city—until now, gardens on public land were prohibited from growing for commercial purposes—but it’s a natural extension of Daftary’s work. With heavy concentrations of vacant lots and recent immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America, the neighborhood boasts dozens of community gardens—a trait ENYF has capitalized on since 1998, when it launched a local farmers’ market to counter city plans to sell gardens to real-estate developers.

“We wanted to get the gardens involved in the food supply system in the neighborhood to add to the case for preserving them,” said Perry Winston, an architect at the Pratt Center for Community and Economic Development who helped found ENYF. “The idea was specifically to get gardens producing food for sale at the farmers’ market.” Greenmarket, the nonprofit that oversees dozens of the city’s farmers’ markets including the one in Union Square, doesn’t take produce from neighborhood gardeners, so the crew in East New York started their own. The market now boasts 33 vendors, including both local gardeners and upstate farmers.

Expansion hasn’t been easy, says Daftary, partly because local farmers are in high demand—and partly because observers are surprised that demand comes from East New York. “People just wouldn't think to even advertise here for organic foods or farmers markets,” she says.

While Daftary started as a fair-trade activist in college, successfully pushing Georgetown University to serve fair-trade coffee in 2003, she feels more grounded in East New York. “The way most fair trade products are [pushed is] through specialty stores, and it’s a slightly higher income,” says Daftary, who still supports consumer causes. “This is about a community that needed something being able to provide for itself.”

If anything, being in a low-income community has been key to the market’s success: In 1999, their market began accepting coupons from a federal program for seniors and young mothers called the Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Today, almost two-thirds of market sales—roughly $55,000—comes from the program. “It’s really reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t have access,” says Winston.

East New York Farms is reaching even further. In 2000, the group founded a youth-run garden that now sells at the market, and has since added a Community Supported Agriculture Project and cooking demonstrations; last year, they helped launch a food cooperative. The group is also helping to coordinate a Brooklyn-based alternative to Greenmarket that can support city-grown food and connect regional farmers with local restaurants and small retailers.

It all adds up to a hub of sustainable food, in a distressed corner of the city. “If it weren’t for this project, East New York is a neighborhood that would be excluded from the sustainable food movement,” says Daftary. “So it’s been really nice to show people that this can happen here.”

Story by Tracie McMillan. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in June 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Continue reading this series

Soil to stoops: Detroit

Soil to stoops: Philadelphia

Soil to stoops: Oakland

Soil to stoops: Brooklyn

Soil to stoops: New Orleans