Vegetables (224942)
Credit: Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

According to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 29 percent of Central Harlem’s population lives below the poverty line, the second poorest community in Manhattan. New York’s most impoverished neighborhoods suffer from the worst illnesses at a higher rate than other communities. Experts are pointing to food injustice as the culprit.

From an infrastructure built on racism to an economy enforcing capitalistic gain at the demise of the little people, poor Black and Brown populations are suffering the greatest from food inequity. But it isn’t just about what’s available in the stores. Critics of theories about food deserts say putting fruits and vegetables in a neighborhood doesn’t make a neighborhood better. Instead it’s about a multi-faceted approach that elevates a community’s overall well-being.


The philosopher Maimonides said, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Advocates and movement workers believe that although creating wider access to fresh food is a priority, teaching populations how to eat properly is the first step to helping communities reclaim their health.

Harlem Children’s Zone is a nonprofit organization that promotes upward mobility among the most impoverished neighborhoods in Central Harlem through education programs, including college preparedness, family reinforcement initiatives and fitness and nutrition education. Their Healthy Harlem arm is an integrated approach to health and wellness education among children and their families.

After school, students participate in nutrition courses where they’re exposed to alternative healthy lifestyle choices, including new fresh food recipes and meals they take home. Andrew Benson, a veteran of the Harlem school cafeteria system, is the executive chef at Healthy Harlem at HCZ, enriching students through food education.

Children are like mirrors, reflecting the lifestyles their parents nurture at home. The same goes with food and nutrition. Benson and his team work tirelessly to expose their students and families to new fruits and vegetables, along with recipes to expand their palate.

“We also do a tremendous amount of work with our parents that are concerned about their children’s [diets],” said Benson. “‘My child is a picky eater or may be allergic.’ So we set up a lot of meetings with parents and start to develop relationships with parents one-on-one to help increase their child’s consumption of [healthy] food and also help make them more aware of items that they may be able to serve that may be better for their child as well as for them. It’s about getting through to the community on different aspects to help improve the overall consumption of food.”

With partners such as the Department of Health and City Harvest, an organization that collects and

distributes what would otherwise be wasted food to the needy, Healthy Harlem attempts to eliminate any excuse for poor families not to eat healthy.

They are not only teaching families how to cook nutritious meals but also teaching them how to shop on a budget, and they even give assistance to 400 families through the Healthy Bucks program.

Participating families receive vouchers to shop at local farmers markets and can pick up $10 worth of produce. Although it may not seem like nearly enough money to feed a family, Marlene Fox of HCZ emphasizes the importance of equipping parents with the knowledge of how to work a dollar for healthy living.

“Our families will go to McDonald’s or Wendy’s, and you can buy four items for $4,” said Fox. “We’re teaching our families that you can also go buy a chicken and you might buy some noodles and some vegetables and you can eat on that for a couple of days. There is a myth that eating healthy costs more money. When we talk to families, they always bring that up. Through our farmers market, through the Healthy Bucks program … we can get around that.”

Matriculation through to college is the ultimate goal for HCZ, but health and wellness is a major factor, both Benson and Fox believe. Over the years as children return to the neighborhood after college, students talk about their advanced college survival skills and discuss their ability to focus in class because of a healthier diet. The organization is trying to stop generational health poverty and disease by teaching.

Advocacy for healthy fresh food access

“Our mission is to strengthen and amplify the Health Department’s work and eliminate health disparities which we say are rooted in historical and contemporary injustices and discrimination, including racism,” said Javier Lopez, assistant commissioner for the Health Department’s Center for Health Equity. “When you think about healthy food access in communities, we are acknowledging through our work that the structures and the environment that have been created have allowed some communities in New York City to have less access to fruit and vegetables.”

The Shop Healthy NYC initiative was launched in 2012, born out of a need to help supply poor neighborhoods with greater access to healthy food choices. Communities and the Center for Health Equity work with local bodega owners to increase the number of healthy food and drink choices. With approximately 80 percent of local shop owners participating in the program, neighborhoods often labeled food deserts now have more diverse options much closer to home.

These policies are the type of policies food justice workers are fighting to implement all-around New York City. With the closure of Pathmark in Harlem for example, many families were left in the lurch to find places to purchase living food. Small shops and other supermarkets picked up the slack but access was still low. Farmers markets and produce carts now also stand in the gap. For a long time, however, poor families on government assistance weren’t able to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables in some of these places.

Just Food, a nonprofit organization, works with local farmers to bring healthy food to the city. Through partnerships and trainings the organization has helped erect hundreds of farmers markets, food pantries and community supported agriculture projects, which serve more than 220,000 people, many of whom are low-income Black and Hispanic residents.

Robin Burger, executive director at Just Food, says it was the combined effort of Just Food and other organizations that pushed for change that now allows EBT to be used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets like the ones they build. But it’s not just about the access that this push has generated. Burger explained that farmers also benefit from government assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and grants because they are paid regularly and in advance to produce food for urban markets.

The organization is collaborating with other food justice efforts to help eradicate inequity and is also training local community leaders to continue to advocate for fresh food access and urban growing.

Sovereignty through land

Working the land is an ancestral right. But a lot of Black folk don’t like the idea of picking anything out of the ground, especially because we’re just getting used to the idea of seeing ourselves on TV in power positions or being respected as influencers of culture and commerce.

“How do we reorient our perspective to the land as owners and producers as opposed to slaves or workers?” asked Michael Easterly during a chat about the most recent Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners conference, which was held in Harlem this year. “How do we look at the land as key to our sovereignty as opposed to a key to our oppression?”

Gardening, farming and growing are unfortunately and frequently associated with slave work the event organizer explained. But he teaches that growing food and owning land is the direct link to health, wealth and liberty for Black people.

Easterly serves on the executive committee for the Black Urban Growers, a collective of food educators and growers who, along with self-proclaimed freedom fighters, annually bring together others in the fight for Black liberation through food equity. People such as Beatriz Beckford of Black Food Justice and renowned farmer Ben Burkett, known for his staunch advocacy for Black farmers’ rights and his belief in the co-op farming model as a survival system for Black growers, teach and practice land ownership as a model for a truly free Black society.

Although rural land ownership for African-Americans is approximately 1 percent in the U.S., the agricultural land ownership is less than 0.5 percent, meaning Black people control less than 1 percent of food production in the U.S.

But the reason isn’t so simple. Easterly explained that oppression of Black people in America over generations is connected to the land, both in the sense of enslavement and in land ownership. Since the time Black people were first allowed to own it, land has been aggressively stripped away from families. But more recently, according to Easterly, land loss occurs simply because people don’t know or forget about it.

Those big houses some of us grew up visiting in the South over summers or that big wide span of pecan trees and grass that served as the backdrop for reunions on the family farm are the jewels that are slipping away from grandkids.

Easterly sites events such as the northern and western migrations of Black people in part as the historical disconnect from their land.

“An heir, someone like me, whose family member died, I get a tax bill for a piece of property in Georgia I’ve never been to,” said Easterly. “So I never pay the bill. So that land gets gone.”

But why is land ownership so important? Margins for Black health disparities are still disproportionately high and access to healthy food and education about food are abysmal. People such as Easterly believe that if African-Americans can reconnect to the land, including getting back into the dirt and growing food in some capacity, those gaps could be closed.

Knowing the land and controlling how our food is grown is a way to take back health. It’s not only a race issue at the end of the day. People’s connection to the earth informs decisions that all lead to longevity.

Urban farming and healing

Scanning her eyes around the herbal garden, Yonnette (Farmer Yon) Fleming said, “A man came over and offered to use his lawn mower for the garden. But what he didn’t know is that there is so much here.” She was telling a small group during an herbal healing workshop about how much the earth’s natural wonders are overlooked.

Fleming is the overseer of the Hattie Carthan Community Garden, where she and her team of volunteer agriculturalists and gardeners practice urban growing and natural healing. Fleming used to be a 300-pound woman, but by adopting a culture of natural eating, healing and growing, she’s shed the equivalent of nearly a whole person, and she imparts her wisdom to the community.

A sprawling 3.75 acres of green land in the middle of Bed-Stuy is covered with herbs, fruit trees, vegetables, chickens and more, an unusual site against an urban backdrop such as Brooklyn. The garden was established in 1981, originally called the Lafayette-Marcy Garden, but it was renamed in 1985 for Carthan, who was known for her love of the environment. A green space in a blighted neighborhood at the time, the garden served as a beacon of change and neighborhood revitalization. Now it’s an urban farm that supplies fresh food to locals and serves as an outdoor holy place for learning, healing and empowerment.

Fleming’s goal is to teaching people thriving skills and to reduce health risks and ailments in the neighborhood, healing people from the soul side out.

“My work has been to physically and spiritually and mentally revitalize the communities so we can eat, breathe and live free again,” she said.

To live free again means being one with the earth and operating with a decolonized mind, a mind that values the earth’s resources and contributions, a mind that relies on the natural resources for healing and wealth.

Despite the changes within the community, Bed-Stuy still ranks high for the number of adults suffering from prominent health conditions such as obesity and diabetes, and the community ranks high for mental illness. Further, Bed-Stuy is nearly leading New York City in rates of adult premature death (before age 65). Brownsville is No. 1.

She says the earth is the key to Black and Brown people regaining control of their health destiny. Not only physical health is connected to food and environment but also attitude, mood and mental stability. At the garden, residents can find healing.

Every week she and her team host workshops at 49 Van Buren St. Visitors can also catch an exhibit at the greenhouse, which is currently showcasing plants from all over the African Diaspora and plants with historical roots in African traditions, rituals and resilience.

On Nov. 20, the garden is hosting a community healing dinner, with food from the garden. Attendees will fellowship and discuss the impact of the latest election results.