Kids Yield Crops: In the Garden with Harlem Grown

Only two years ago, the lot across the street from P.S. 175 in Harlem was desolate: an abandoned community garden overflowing with trash, rats, and weeds. Thanks largely to the elementary school students next door, the space is a garden once more as it overflows with everything from cucumbers and melons to birds and worms, not to mention a ton of fresh basil.

The restoration all started with Tony Hillery, a man who originally came to P.S. 175 to assist the school’s parent coordinator. After spending some time in the area, though, Hillery had a revelation. Walking around the neighborhood, he counted 53 fried chicken restaurants within a three-block radius, and he began to think about the community’s access to nutritious food.

“You have pizza, fried chicken, fried fish, fried everything. I couldn’t get a healthy meal,” he said. “It was an epiphany. I said to myself: Why not do something?”

Tony (or, as the children call him, "Mr. Tony") looked into the empty lot across from the school and soon re-registered it as a community garden with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation. Thus, the non-profit organization Harlem Grown was born and began to (rapidly) grow. Once the space was cleaned out, each of P.S. 175’s students planted a seedling in fresh organic soil.  “When it started blooming, [the kids] started eating vegetables,” said Tony. “Before, they didn’t eat vegetables.”

Located on West 134th Street, between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Boulevard, the garden contains enough varieties of all-natural produce to rival any farmers’ market in the city. Rather than pesticides and poisons, Harlem Grown special orders ladybugs and praying mantises. This summer, the garden has tomatoes, strawberries, and string beans, parsley, basil, and mint.

When ripe, the vegetables and fruit go across the street and directly toward the school’s breakfast and lunch program. Result of its connection with Wellness in the Schools, Harlem Grown has provided P.S. 175 with a professional chef to assist the cooking staff and create a vegetable-based diet for the children, as well as a fully-stocked salad bar.

Rumor has it that kids don’t like vegetables unless they’re smothered in Cheez Wiz, but P.S. 175 indicates otherwise. “The kids walk around eating salad instead of chips,” Tony said. “They eat it and they love it.”

By the beginning of September, the organization will complete what Tony calls “Phase Two” of Harlem Grown: a hydroponic greenhouse, located in another lot across the street from the school. Entirely self-contained with solar panels and a rain filtration system, the greenhouse will produce micro-greens, 75 percent of which will be purchased by local restaurants, to keep the organization afloat. The other 25 percent will be available for the school and surrounding community. Like the garden’s produce, the micro-greens will be completely free of charge to those who live in the area. As Tony put it, “Any time a family wants something, all they have to do is come over and get it.”

While Harlem Grown is still relatively new, its success has not gone unnoticed. On June 15, the P.S. 175 students were invited to the White House, where they received a private tour of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Kitchen Garden.

Apart from adopting a completely different—and healthy—diet since Harlem Grown’s inception, the kids at P.S. 175 have received a different education, as well.

“I had a conversation when I first got here with a kindergartener who told me that tomatoes are grown in the supermarket, because they saw them on the vine, with the water coming down. Now they know exactly where it comes from,” said Tony. “Everything in the garden is a lesson.”

The students plant, take care of, and pick the vegetables, fruits, and herbs. With that, they maintain a compost system and recycling program—and partake in bird-watching. The teachers are involved with Harlem Grown and the program is tightly incorporated into the school curriculum. The garden has a stage for lessons and beside the tall-growing corn stands a wooden sign: “Science lessons in progress: Do not harvest.”

With changing their intellectual careers, Harlem Grown has also changed the students’ personal lives. “The garden provides us with a lot of one-on-one time with the kids,” said Tony. “When they’re here working, they just open up and start talking. It gives them a place to vent and navigate their problems. Last year we like 40 fights in school. This year we had no fights.”

Because Harlem Grown is non-profit, monetary donations are welcome, but what Tony encourages most is for people to stop by and check out the school’s Urban Eden. “What moves the kids is that people actually care about what they’re doing. They look like it’s Christmas—so happy to show you the basil that they planted. And they’ll tell you all about the basil, all about the process.”

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Photos: Emma Laperruque