Five Borough Farm: Supporting Urban Agriculture in New York City

By Abby Youngblood, Food and Environment Program Officer, North Star Fund and Coordinator, Community Food Funders

New York City communities face myriad challenges related to our health, economic vitality and social and ecological well-being. Unemployment rates, especially among youth and in communities of color, are at record-high levels. Data from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene indicate that 9 out of 10 New Yorkers eat fewer than the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables each day and that 14 percent eat no fruits and vegetables at all. Inadequate infrastructure to manage storm water can also undermine our public health—each time it rains with as little as 1/10th of an inch of rain, storm drains can overflow, allowing raw sewage to enter our waterways.

Urban agriculture has the power to address all of these disparate challenges, as well as many others. On October 25, research experts who are leading the “Five Borough Farm Project” described the myriad benefits of urban agriculture at a funder briefing and strategy session hosted by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Urban agriculture projects, for example, hire teens to manage farms or run markets and in the process provide job-readiness skills and employment opportunities for youth. With very limited public and private sector investment, community growers provide access to fresh vegetables in parts of the city with few retail outlets that stock fresh produce; research indicates that these community farms result in increased fruit and vegetable consumption among participants. And, for their role in managing storm water run-off, rooftop farms have been the recipients of green infrastructure grants from the NYC Department of Environmental Protection. Practiced on a broader scale, this type of green infrastructure could keep our waterways healthier and significantly reduce NYC’s regular violations of the Clean Water Act that result when sewage enters waterways.

New York is one of the most vibrant urban agriculture cities in the United States. The Five Borough Farm project has surveyed the more than 700 existing sites (there are nearly 3 times as many farms and gardens in the city as there are Starbucks locations) and documented existing activity using photographs, maps and a website with graphics, tools and resources. Of particular interest to the philanthropic community is a metrics framework created by the Five Borough Farm team that uses evidence-based research to highlight the health, social, economic and ecological benefits of urban agriculture activities.

The funder briefing not only exposed the philanthropic community to the significance and range of urban agriculture activities in the city (from community gardens to commercial farms), but also generated a number of strategies for the philanthropic community to further this work and to coordinate and leverage our efforts to maximize our collective impact.

Several key recommendations for foundations and other investors emerged from the briefing:

  • Funders can support work to address disparities within the NYC urban agriculture community. Though the NYC urban agriculture movement is decades old and has strong leadership from low-income communities and communities of color, historically these communities have not received substantial public or private funds to support their work. Funders can seek out and support organizations doing racial justice trainings and gender equality work through urban agriculture as a means of addressing deeper structural inequalities—and the creation of a streamlined funding application that grantees could use to apply for funds from multiple foundations could simplify and make grants accessible to a wider range of groups.
  • Philanthropy can catalyze government support for urban agriculture at the city level by supporting policy integration across departments and by funding capacity building for agencies and staff who provide key support to the urban agriculture community.
  • Funders can advocate for ways to further incorporate urban agriculture into the cityscape by incentivizing the incorporation of farms and gardens in NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments and by providing support to create micro-food hubs that would provide for the storage and processing of urban grown food.
  • Growing the urban agriculture movement depends on access to land and protection of this land for urban agriculture, and on ensuring that individuals have appropriate technical assistance and resources, all of which funders can mobilize around. In particular, the philanthropic community can provide resources and support to organizations that are playing a key role in supporting the 700 farms and gardens throughout the city.

As next steps, funders around the table agreed that it would be helpful to identify where foundation resources are currently flowing, share grantee lists with each other and think strategically about where we can leverage our resources to affect change. Participants expressed interest in forming working groups and participating in follow-up conversations to facilitate further collaboration. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Community Food Funders will help to coordinate these collaborative efforts.

If you would like to participate in future conversations, learn more about the briefing or receive a copy of the notes, please contact Abby Youngblood at abby@northstarfund.org.

Postscript:
Five Borough Farm project partner Added Value in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy—this 2.75-acre urban farm was submerged by several feet of sea water, which ruined crops, possibly contaminated the soil and resulted in the loss of topsoil and beehives. Their office was also flooded. This article tells the story of how Added Value and other urban farms were impacted during the storm.

To learn more about how to help Added Value and other urban farms, visit the Food System Network listing of post-Sandy volunteer and donation opportunities:
http://foodsystemsnyc.org/announcement/post-sandy-volunteer-donation-opportunities.

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