Seed Street brings urban gardening to Harlem streets
A young entrepreneur teamed up with a NYC DJ to teach kids how to grow hydroponic veggies inside shipping containers.
A new nonprofit based in Harlem is teaching kids how to grow veggies in hydroponic gardens inside the unlikeliest of places – shipping containers. After a successful first year operating an after-school pilot program at the Children’s Aid Society, Seed Street has set its sights a little higher and hopes to begin offering jobs for hydroponic gardeners.
“There are many Harlem organizations working on food justice initiatives and youth development programming, but we noticed that as these young farmers finish high school they don’t really have a place to utilize their skills – there’s not a structured way for them to leverage what they’ve learned,” Seed Street founder Leigh Ofer told From the Grapevine.
Ofer grew up in some of the world’s most dynamic cities – Hong Kong, Singapore, New York and Tel Aviv – and food and agriculture have always been in the back of her mind. Her family has a fertilizer business in Israel and, on a personal level, she says body image and eating healthfully has always been a struggle for her. It all came together for her in an environmental justice class at Brown University, where she learned about the inaccessibility of healthy food.
“What about all those people who struggle just in their day-to-day survival and have no money to pursue and peruse healthy options, let alone the time to excavate the crazy range of options out there?” she said.
In order to get her idea off the ground, Ofer knew she had to make it fun as well as educational. So she teamed up with friend Hannah Bronfman, a New York City DJ, model and healthy living advocate with deep ties to Harlem.
While there are a lot of groups organizing and promoting rooftop gardening in Manhattan, Ofer and Bronfman wanted to find a solution to the urban food desert that was both sun and temperature agnostic, which led them to hydroponics. Ofer’s grandfather started a shipping container company in Israel in the 1950s, and she was attracted to the idea of repurposing the containers into transportable, stackable, visual gardens.
“Taking a container at the end of its lifecycle and giving it a new job really appeals to me,” she said.
The rest of the core Seed Street team is made up of Anisha Atluri and Leanne Stella, and hydroponics wiz Randy Cameron.
It was a fortuitous Google search that led them to Cameron. Known as Farmer Randy, he had spent more than 12 years teaching hydroponics and aquaponics to kids across the five boroughs of New York. “Randy was one of the first names that came up in Google."
Cameron was instrumental in getting the pilot program, called "Grow, Move and Create," off the ground at CAS. About 60 kids ages 8 to 10 participated in the program – which taught cooking, yoga, meditation and creative expression, in addition to hydroponic farming.
Ofer and Bronfman have also called upon friends and colleagues to serve as advisors to the project. “Between Hannah and I, we’ve been really lucky to have people who support us and believe in us and believe in Seed Street’s mission and see its potential as a way to alleviating food justice issues," Ofer told us.
Earlier this year, a renowned East Village graffiti painter who goes by the moniker Billy the Artist worked alongside the kids at the Children’s Aid Society to bring the pilot container to life. “The kids themselves came and painted and had the best time. It’s something that really strikes you as you walk by. The more eyeballs that see this and are drawn to it, the more effective our message is,” Ofer said.
The most popular crops have been tomatoes, leafy greens, peppers, squash and herbs, but the actual produce is a byproduct of the education. Part of the challenge, said Ofer, is to give away bags of lettuce to people who don’t know what to do with it. They’ve been experimenting with creative ways to distribute it from farm stands to cultivating relationships with neighborhood restaurants.
The mission of Seed Street is guided by three pillars: access, opportunity and education. The "Grow, Move and Create" program at CAS is now on a summer break and will resume in the fall. While Ofer said Seed Street has improved accessibility to fresh, healthy foods and educated local children about those foods and how to grow them, they’ve realized they were lacking in the areas of employment opportunity and economic stability.
"One thing we found out is there are some serious gaps in food justice in Harlem and our program was not designed to be as effective as it could. We decided to shift our focus more toward economic development to be more impactful and a better fit in the existing environment,” said Ofer.
What that means is that Seed Street will be expanding to a commercial model. They’ll add more sites to offer more access to locally grown food – up to five just within Harlem – but also to offer jobs where young New York City farmers can utilize their skills.
They plan to work in tandem with other Harlem organizations. In addition to giving people skills with hydroponic farming, they will also be an incubator with community programming surrounding cooking, eating and a healthy lifestyle to encourage others to replicate what they’ve learned and create their own local business.
“Harlem is a really interesting place because of its character, it’s a real New York neighborhood. It’s got so much pride and it’s super rich in history,” Ofer said.
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