Tony Hillery (308920)
Credit: Contributed

“The typical community garden in New York City is volunteer-driven, we’re not. Harlem Grown, although we plant fruits and vegetables, we grow people. So, we take local people, pay fair wages with healthcare to be farmers,” said Hillery.

Tony Hillery founded and has run Harlem Grown farms in Harlem, Manhattan for the past 10 years. 

Before he started the farm in 2011, he had his own limousine company that served the entertainment industry. While volunteering in an elementary school in Harlem, as a father of three children, Hillery discovered an abandoned community garden located directly across the street from the school. 

Dissatisfied with the surrounding streets’ food options, and finding only fast-food restaurants, he was inspired to start Harlem Grown.

“It’s not an accident that where we have our first farm, we have 55 fast-food restaurants in a three-block radius with 29 pharmacies and not one affordable option when all the families [are] on food stamps,” said Hillery about the food apartheid in Harlem. “That can’t be an accident or coincidence.”

Hillery and his team worked to re-register the abandoned garden. He and 400 students planted 400 seedlings to begin with and now the project continues to inspire youth to lead healthy and ambitious lives through mentorship and hands-on education in urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition.

Hillery noted that many of the LGBTQ and/or Black and Brown youth they serve aren’t in stable homes. “We worked throughout the pandemic, not just growing food but rallying our wide network of supporters. It was our finest moment because we work with the most vulnerable in Harlem. Most of our children are in transitional housing or homeless,” said Hillery. “I was very proud of our response.” 

Hillery said that the farm worked to grow food, deliver prepared meals to people sheltering in place and shelters nearby, and partnered with restaurants that needed food supplies. 

He excitedly spoke about the new mobile teaching kitchen that the farm had crafted within a truck to take to youth in NYCHA developments and shelters nearby. He said the detachable cooking unit will be educational and entertaining for kids in stressed living situations.  

Hillery said that the increases to the Child Tax Credit and SNAP benefits program last year should be permanent, and are just a few systemic or legislative solutions to shrink food insecurity in the city. 

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America Corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for the AmsterdamNews. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w