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.”

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.)

* * *

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.”

To explore those issues, Freiberg moved to Brooklyn and worked for Added Value, a two-acre farm in the heart of the blue-collar Red Hook neighborhood, and then at Stone Barns, where he studied how nonprofit and for-profit partnerships can strengthen local food networks. In the fall of 2008, the inexhaustible Freiberg enrolled at F&ES.

Successful farms have access to land, markets and capital. Freiberg has his land (vacant lots) and his buyers (local restaurants), and his need for capital has, so far, been minimal (thanks to his partnership with the Urban Resources Initiative). But this calculus is bound to change if Freiberg decides to scale up. “Farming in vacant lots with city support isn’t sustainable or scalable,” he said. “We want to get off public funding, but we think the kids should be rewarded for good work.” Asked if any other retail-oriented urban farm manages to survive without foundation or government support, he said, “I haven’t seen it.” (Community gardens, which lack the retail component, flourish with nominal membership dues.)

And if the Urban Foodshed Collaborative failed, this past summer, to send a significant amount of healthy food into the inner city, it did “demonstrate both the need and the demand for good food and good jobs in the community,” said Freiberg. “Policymakers and urban planners will see there’s a role for young people to play, and the private sector will see there’s a chance to make some money.”

To that end, he is planning to try something a little different this summer. Piloting his grandmother’s Saturn station wagon, loaded with muddy pallets, plywood and ThermaGlas, toward Sage Hall, Freiberg mutters to himself, “I hope someone brings the nails.” This afternoon he’s roped a dozen Yale students—from as far afield as architecture, public health, forestry and environmental management—into his afternoon charrette, or design workshop. “We’re trying to design portable beds to set up in sliver lots,” he tells the group. The planting beds, up to 30 of them, will be used exclusively for microgreens, a crop that brought in $1,500 last summer (the money went toward building supplies). Freiberg lists the beds’ constraints: “They have to be light enough to be moved easily to other lots, in case the city sells the property or interest in tending the beds wanes; too heavy to steal; and aesthetically interesting. And they have to contain an educational component and collect rainwater.” The sliver lots don’t have water hookups, and microgreens need about an inch a week. Oh, and if the beds can serve as cold frames, extending the growing season at either end, so much the better.

Setting aside their metal mugs and Mason jars of tea, the Yale students settle down to work. Over the next three hours, drawings are produced, Freiberg is con-sulted, a power saw whines. Once a design is established, mass production will begin. “We could employ 30 teens this summer,” Freiberg said, hopefully.

But will they grow anything beyond microgreens? That’s an open question. If Freiberg wanted to grow vegetables to sell to the community, he’d need to deal with permits, and he’d need to build his beds several inches deeper. He’d need more water, and he’d need to set a price for his produce that justified the extra labor. It was far easier, at this point, to stick with the microgreens, which grow quickly and at high density and have eager buyers at upscale restaurants. It’s a dilemma that many new, small farmers contemplate daily: the people Freiberg would most like to reach with fresh, wholesome food are the ones who can least afford its real (that is, unsubsidized) price.

* * *

The Urban Foodshed documentary, which was directed by Giovanni Paolo Autran and was shown last April at Yale’s Environmental Film Festival, was shot in full sun. At work in the plots, Freiberg’s teenagers appear relaxed and happy. Their basil is knee-high; their tomatoes are staked with perfect rhythmic parallelism; and the precious microgreens are as dense as shag carpet. Noel Colon speaks to the camera: When the program is over, he said, “maybe I’m going to start cleaning up the gardens, recycling, taking out the basil and use them in the kitchen.” Kevin Taylor, a graduate of Common Ground High School, pulling weeds from the Stevens Street garden, hopes that people from the neighborhood will visit, plant and meet their neighbors. “It will probably bring the community together instead of keeping them apart.” A pit bull chained nearby barks and barks.

Gordon Epps dumps a wheelbarrow of soil as rich as devil’s food cake into a raised bed. “I think it’s gonna pay off,” he said. “It’s gonna look good.”

“It’s already looking good,” Christian Ramirez, a high school junior, tells him, smiling.

“I like it already,” Gordon said.

Christian nods. “Me too.”

You can also watch the Urban Foodshed documentary at www.urbanfoodshed.org, and an accompanying short video is available on the home page at environment.yale.edu. At press time, Freiberg received an Elm Ivy Award for his work with youth and gardening from the offices of the mayor of New Haven and the president of Yale University.

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Top of Page | Spring 2010 | environment:YALE