Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Tony Hillery, the founder of Harlem Grown, about his organization’s commitment to inspiring youth to live healthy, ambitious lives. In addition to providing mentorship and role models to impoverished youth, Harlem Grown provides hands-on education in urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition. When we spoke with Tony Hillery, he talked about the inception of Harlem Grown, its impact so far, and its plans for future expansion.
Food Tank (FT): The idea to start Harlem Grown came to you while volunteering in an elementary school in Harlem, New York. What inspired you to pursue this project?
Tony Hillery (TH): The financial crisis in 2010 hit me hard. During this time, I was reading about the state of schools in the inner city. I didn’t believe it was as bad as what I was reading, so I started volunteering to see for myself. I volunteered with no direction or sense of what I was getting into—I went because I wanted to show parents the importance of education in breaking the cycle of poverty. The parents, however, thought that they were doing fine without any education. I didn’t know how to respond to that without being condescending. So, after three weeks, I gravitated towards the children.
I started working in the lunchroom of an elementary school, where I noticed that the children, most of whom rely on school meals for breakfast, lunch, and supper, were not eating their vegetables. Many could not even identify vegetables. From this, the idea for Harlem Grown grew organically. We cleared out an abandoned garden across the street from the school, bought seedlings for each of the 400 students, and everyone planted something.
When a child plants something his or herself and tends to the plant, 9 times out of 10, he or she will always eat the final product and almost always like it. The problem, however, was that these children had no other access to healthy foods. Eighty percent of the kids we serve live in a single parent household; 90 percent live below poverty; almost 100 percent are on food stamps; 30 percent are homeless; and, although there are 53 fried chicken restaurants in a three-block radius, there are no affordable supermarkets.
FT: How did you encourage students to join the project? How many students are currently involved?
TH: First, while I was working in the lunchroom, we started recycling and composting to get kids involved. Almost immediately, we saw a 60-percent reduction in lunchroom fighting. Today, in our partner schools, we see an 80-percent to a 100-percent reduction in lunchroom fighting after implementing our program.
From this, we started using the garden across the street that I mentioned and educated children on urban farming. The first school was 400 children and then we expanded to another 400-student school. The schools run from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, so ages five to eleven. We want to instill healthy habits early, so they make it their life choice.
Today, we serve about 2,300 students per year at the original location, which boasts about a one-third acre of farm space and a hydroponic greenhouse. We also have seven additional, smaller locations. We compost, grow organic produce, utilize rainwater for drip irrigation, and even raise chickens. We recently bought another large lot where we plan to build a state-of-the-art learning center.
To keep kids engaged, we are on the ground every day. We have to break the children’s idea that they are doing great in this condition. We can’t tell them it isn’t normal to live like this, but we can show them by bringing in college-educated mentors to work closely with them. I love one of our hashtags, #SeeItToBeIt. We need successful people to come work on the farm with our children to develop conversations and give them access to the world.
Our farm is open seven days a week, and kids are there every day. We introduce them to the farm during school by running the lunchroom and taking trips to the farm, but then they just start coming on their own time. Many will bring their families with them, which is important. We try to set up health screenings or yoga and meditation to engage the parents.
FT: You focus on youth development, urban farms, food justice, and sustainability. Could you describe each of these?
TH: Youth development is our mission statement. We are a youth development organization. We aren’t just giving them food, but they are growing it and taking ownership of it.
Urban farms are our arena. We engage the children on a constructive level and teach them how to grow their food.
From that, comes food justice. We incorporate conversations about why we can’t get food in Harlem and why we need to travel so far to get affordable food. We want these kids to create a demand here for healthy, affordable foods.
With sustainability, we strive to keep everything local and keep children aware of their environment through composting and recycling. We use the farm to condense this into everyday messaging.
FT: Harlem Grown is a relatively young organization, being founded in 2011. Do you have plans for expansion? Where do you see the organization, and yourself, in five years?
TH: I came into this with no plan, and now it has grown into this. Our first generation of kids is going off to college, and they tell me that Harlem Grown was part of what got them to where they are. I am confident that some of our core children now, they’ll be running this when they get out of college. Every day, one of our kids tells me this is the best day of his or her life. That’s why we are doing this.
We have seen the same results in all three of our schools, and we have 32 schools in Harlem to go. It could be a national model, but we don’t want to skip any steps. We want to take care of Harlem and then think about scaling it.
FT: Is there anything else that readers should know about Harlem Grown?
TH: Yes. There is one part that I am really proud of—workforce development. We take 17 to 24-year-old male, high school dropouts who have been arrested and provide them with internships. We then offer jobs to the ones who really get the mission. We pay them better than minimum wage and help them obtain a GED, open a bank account, and register to vote.
These men are the same children we serve in schools, but ten years from now with no intervention. They serve as positive mentors to the children. They were on the margins, but they have turned their lives around and want to be productive members of society. I am really proud of that.