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Inner-city salvation from greenhouses

by Hugh Maynard

Most references to urban agriculture are usually anointed with the term "cowboy", giving the impression that production of food within city limits is likely to be cattle feedlots erected on disused parking lots. It is, however, the growing of green life, as little as it may be in relation to the surrounding hustle and bustle, that is the main urban farming activity. Greenhouses, community gardens, the odd nursery or two; even flowers in the park can be counted for their visual contribution to the greening of the grey landscape.

In one of the most devastated of urban settings - the South Bronx district of New York, N.Y. - there isn't much green at all: rubble-strewn empty lots are all that's left of demolished tenement houses; unemployment is endemic and families are crippled by their dependence on welfare; aspirations are smothered by hopelessness, drugs and alcohol become a substitute for life itself. Against this back-drop, the New Leaf Program has achieved a modicum of success in returning some life to this ghetto through the establishment of a greenhouse operation.

From the street alongside the former school, now converted into a residential treatment facility for substance abusers, the use of the term "green" would seem to be a slight overstatement. A nine-foot high chainlike fence surrounds the greenhouses in the old school yard, topped off with razor wire not, as one might think, to keep the program participants in, but to keep the vandals out. Inside, however, the starkness of the outside scenery is hidden by the translucent plastic covering of the greenhouses; cement and asphalt gives way to the fresh fragrance of herbs, hanging plants, flowers and a variety of vegetables.

Giving purpose

The transformed atmosphere is world's apart from the street life, just a few yards away, that Miguel once knew only as a ‘crack’ addict. He became one of the 160 males that the Argus Community takes in annually for treatment and rehabilitation. The New Leaf Program is designed to change the focus of its' participants lives, from re-learning how to get out of bed in the morning on time to accepting responsibility in a work setting.

Miguel took to the challenge, not only completing the program but also a course in greenhouse production to become "the horticulturalist" for the program. He now directs the production of herbs that are used to make gourmet herbal vinegar as well as the fresh produce which is sold by program participants every Friday at the "Greenmarket" in New York's Union Square.

"In only two years, we have accomplished so much," Miguel said, a statement that reflects not only the success of the greenhouses as part of the rehabilitation program but also on the manager of sales and marketing, Cindy Gorman. The title seems a little odd for someone trying to change the ways of those down and out from substance abuse but has, in fact, given program participants some purpose in their work.

Gorman has managed to secure sales outlets for the herbal vinegar at ten stores in the tri-state area, where, she says, the vinegar "is sold as a high end item." Those sales bring in needed revenue and each bottle has a card describing the program, a little publicity that doesn't go amiss.

She also helped to set up the stall at the Greenmarket, another project that enables enrollees to interact with the public and to see the results of their labours; the work fosters a positive image in participants who might otherwise leave feeling their time had been spent making knick-knacks just for the sake of something to do. "We do pretty well at the market, says Gorman, it's been a great thing for us."

Going "green" with farmers markets

Marketing may be the farming buzzword for the 1990s, but it's nothing new to the "Greenmarket" program, now running in New York City for the last 17 years. Founded as an outlet for small orchard operators who were going out of business because they didn't fit in to the mega-sized food marketing systems of one of the world's largest metropolitan centres, the 25 Greenmarkets are now open-air opportunities for nearly 200 farmers who cultivate a total of 9,000 acres and record $15 million (U.S.) in sales annually.

Providing direct access to the buying public in a huge urban market, the program also gives up to 60,000 people per week access to a wider range - 450 varieties - of fresh, locally-grown produce; the two meld, according to Greenmarket's assistant director, Tony Manetta, into "a sense of community."

The sales focus of the Greenmarkets has, in the spirit of community, been joined with a coupon program for inner-city families judged to be nutritionally-at-risk. Food stamps can be used with the coupons to buy up to $20 worth of produce at the Greenmarkets; the farmers are encouraged to accept the food stamps with a $100 credit that is given to off-set the service fees which range from $25-50 per day.

"The mothers come away with fresh quality products and the farmers have benefited in developing markets in low-income areas," says Manetta.

Public service

Those who sell at the Greenmarkets must be bonafide farmers, not re-sellers of someone else's produce. The farms are subject to inspection to verify that the farmer has the capacity to grow the amount of produce that is being sold from the allocated stall.

They must also sign up for a whole year to prevent "one day dumping," and the consequent drop in prices, when harvests reach peak season. Otherwise, pricing is unregulated and is usually 10-30% cheaper than local supermarkets, which regard the markets as a "nuisance." By avoiding the middleman, however, Manetta estimates that a grower can sell, for example, a head of lettuce for $1 rather than take the $6-$10 per box of 24 offered by wholesalers.

The administrative burden is also kept to a minimum, restricted to a market manager and a security guard to ward off pick-pockets.

"Our only obstacle is a lack of growers," says Manetta, who points to high land prices and taxes as the limiting factor for keeping enough farmers in nearby locations.

"One grower said he would have to charge $15 for a head of lettuce in order to pay the property taxes of $4,000 per acre." With land selling for $60,000 per acre, even direct market access isn't always enough to keep farmers in business.

Copyright 1993. REAP Canada

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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