You wouldn’t expect to find a vegetable farm at a public housing development in New York City. But a one-acre farm at Red Hook Houses—the first-ever large farm on New York City Housing Authority property—is growing cabbage, collard greens, butternut squash and basil. Soon, new urban farms will sprout on five more NYCHA properties in Brownsville and Canarsie in Brooklyn, East Harlem, the Bronx and Staten Island.
These new farms will increase access to fresh produce in communities with high levels of poverty, food insecurity and diet-related diseases, while also serving as hubs for education, community engagement, and job training for residents. The workers will be supplied by Green City Force, a nationally recognized AmeriCorps program that recruits and trains 18- to 24-year-old NYCHA residents and pays them to work on environmental sustainability and energy-efficiency programs at Housing Authority sites. These young people gain rigorous job training and career planning support that propels them into jobs.
It’s an innovative strategy to address very tough issues that limit opportunities for New Yorkers in low-income neighborhoods.
We are all too familiar with the statistics in these areas: unacceptable rates of poverty, unemployment, dropouts, homelessness, hunger and diet-related diseases including obesity and diabetes. These issues are intertwined, and the only way to make headway is through comprehensive community strategies and collaboration across sectors.
The farms are one component of Building Healthy Communities, a multimillion-dollar public-private partnership launched by Mayor Bill de Blasio to improve public safety and increase access to physical activity and healthful food in 12 densely populated and historically underserved New York neighborhoods. While five neighborhoods will have new farms built over the next two years, others will see an array of pedestrian plazas, improved parks and open spaces, community and school gardens, farmers markets and community health hubs.
Building Healthy Communities will leverage the best thinking and investments from 11 city agencies, including the Department of Health, the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Transportation. But government can’t do it alone. Partnerships with the city’s business and philanthropic communities are essential.
The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund has joined with other foundations and corporations, including the New York State Health Foundation and Unilever, to help bring these initiatives to fruition. The Illumination Fund’s $500,000 grant will enable the expansion of NYCHA’s Urban Agriculture initiative, building upon the model at the Red Hook Houses. The Mayor’s Office for Strategic Partnerships and the Fund for Public Health—which are leading the Building Healthy Communities initiative for the de Blasio administration—will work with NYCHA, Green City Force and community organizations in each neighborhood to build the new urban farms.
This is an example of the power and potential of public-private partnership. Funders that are willing to take smart risks can bridge gaps and act as catalysts for innovation.
The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund has seen the importance of such partnerships in several of our initiatives. Our mission is to find strategies that help to level the playing field for New Yorkers—whether that’s access to good food, the arts, education or economic opportunity.
When the Illumination Fund was established in 2007, one of our first major grants was to fund and the launch and expansion of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s NYC Green Carts initiative, which brought street vendors selling fresh fruit and vegetables to historically underserved neighborhoods, increasing access to quality food and creating microbusinesses and jobs. A 2014 evaluation by Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs concluded that the Green Cart initiative “has increased access to healthy food in otherwise underserved high-density and low-income neighborhoods, influenced customers’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, and created jobs for immigrant entrepreneurs.”
The report noted that key ingredients of success included “public-private partnership, philanthropy that promotes and supports policy innovation, support for innovation from City Hall, and involvement of a city agency with the sustained interest and capacity to implement an innovative program.”
We believe that the Building Healthy Communities initiative has these fundamentals.
Public-private partnerships are a pillar of our Healthy Food & Community Change strategy, which includes work with Wholesome Wave, partnering with the NYC Health + Hospitals to launch the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, and support for Share Our Strength’s partnership with the Department of Education to increase the reach of the NYC Summer Meals Program, which last year served eight million meals to children who lose access to school meals during the summer.
Success stories like these highlight the opportunity for foundations to step into their roles as springboards of innovation. But beyond this, through new collaborative efforts like Building Healthy Communities, individuals, communities, businesses, and government must work together so the places where we live, learn, work and play support good health.