Growing Food & Urban Farmers

As the gardens grew, Freiberg drilled his employees: What is this leaf? What does it smell like? What does it taste like? “At the end, they could distinguish between mizuna, arugula, tat soi, shungiku and Green Wave, a spicy mustard green, and also explain how they tasted different.” When the microgreens were ready to cut, the teens brought them in a large plastic bag to Miya’s Sushi, with which Freiberg had contracted before his first seed went into the ground. When Bun Lai, Miya’s owner, first saw the greens, which cost $10 a pound, he said, “This is, like, the best-looking salad I’ve ever seen. I’m not even kidding you.” With a gloved hand, he tossed the delicate leaves with a soy sauce dressing. “This was grown right here in New Haven at Foodshed by Justin and a bunch of high school kids,” he told a diner as he set a plate ($6.75) before her.

None of the teenagers had ever been in a sushi restaurant. Lai served them a meal; as the microgreens grew and the weeks passed, they began to like raw fish. Lai couldn’t have been happier. “These aren’t prep school kids, and they were used to eating unhealthy foods. Justin exposed them to an array of vegetables for the first time. He opened their minds to new ideas and experiences.” Like the café at Atticus, Miya’s emphasized the origin of the greens. “The story sells,” Lai said. “Sure, I support the Yale Farm; we also buy their greens. But high school kids from New Haven are very different from Yale students.”

The Foodshed had a steady taker for its microgreens, but the fate of the team’s collard greens, tomatoes and peppers was less certain. “I asked the teenagers if we should go door-to-door, or to churches or community groups,” Freiberg said. “They said churches were a good idea but do not go door-to-door with this food, do not say it’s from New Haven and do not give it away.” Food that’s free has no value, the teens taught Freiberg—this wasn’t charity. (To his frustration, Freiberg learned that department of health regulations, and the fact that the city owned most of his farmland, complicated his vegetables’ passage from farm to fork. Unable to sell his crop at local markets, he ended up giving it away, not unhappily, at community events.)

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Growing healthy food for the poorly nourished close to where they live has an irresistible appeal. But the urban-farming concept carries a hefty burden as well. In the popular imagination, urban gardens are expected to introduce healthy options in food deserts, train the next generation of farmers, transform blight into beauty, preserve open space, enhance food safety, slash carbon “foodprints,” feed the hungry, filter storm runoff, clean the air, cool the atmosphere, sequester carbon, reduce packaging waste and convert food scraps to fertilizer. But when Freiberg began his project, he had little of this in mind. “I want to grow youth who can think about a job that’s profitable and that enhances community at the same time,” he said. He never uses the phrase green job with his kids, doesn’t whisper food justice or “shove the environment down their throat.” Community building? Don’t mention it. The young men he employed mostly just wanted a job.

“Why wouldn’t you want to have something like this on your resume?” said Noel Colon, a high school senior. “The mayor will look at us and see we’re doing something good for the community and making some money at the same time.”

Cleaning up the neighborhood lots, said Gordon Epps, a slender high school sophomore, “was a lot of hard work. I’d like to see it pay.”

Freiberg grew up eating fresh produce from the terraced garden behind his Brookline home. “My dad cooks really well, his mom is a caterer and my great aunt ran a Chinese restaurant,” he said. “I thought I wanted to find a career with food. I wanted to connect to people through food.”

But, first, an undergraduate degree. As a psychology student at Wesleyan University, Freiberg studied con artists and “border crossers,” who skirted, often to great popular acclaim, the line between legal and not. He spent a semester abroad in Paris, where an afternoon deluge changed his life. “I was standing outside a café,” he said. “The gutters were clogged, the sewers were overflowing and the water was running into and out of my shoes. And this thought just hit me across the face: I want to go someplace where the land is permeable.”

At the end of his semester, Freiberg labored, through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, for three months on farms in Italy and Switzerland. Back at Wesleyan, he began a master’s program in social psychology. After realizing he was continually quoting the food author Michael Pollan, he decided to switch his focus to food and its politics, though not before completing his master’s, spending a summer at Middlebury College learning Chinese (his mother is Chinese-American) and briefly interning at the US-Asia Institute. In pursuit of earthier experiences, Freiberg moved to Bangladesh to study its food system, teach classes in food politics and build a rooftop farm. “Europe was beautiful; it had itself together foodwise, or so it seemed to me at the time,” said Freiberg. “But I came back from Bangladesh fascinated. I’d been blind to how un-together we were in the States, that we had similar food security issues here.”

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