A tree grows in Brooklyn — a pear tree, to be specific, and it’s currently flourishing in 18 inches of soil piled on top of asphalt at the Red Hook Community Farm. A few weeks ago, the tree offered its first ever harvest of pears, and, as part of the farm’s Added Value youth empowerment program, Brooklyn teens helped clip off the ripe fruit. The pears served as both a snack for the kids and as part of the farm’s community supported agriculture shares.
Ian Marvey, the co-founder of the Red Hook Community Farm, explained that the tree is a Red Bartlett and, like many fruit trees, grows for several years before bearing fruit. “It’s a tree planted about seven years ago, and for whatever reason this year, the harvest has been fecund,” he said. “It’s beautiful."
Selena Gonzalez, a senior youth leader at the farm, added that the farm grew and sold melons for the first time this year, and also recent harvests included collard greens, kale, chard and corn. “Corn isn’t one of the easiest things to grow on our farm,” said Gonzalez, who explained that the crop is susceptible to bugs. It also has to contend with growing in the relatively thin layer of soil on the farm.
The geographic context of the farm is nearly as remarkable as the asphalt that lays under its plants. “It took me awhile to get used to the fact that there was a farm, like, right across the street from the projects,” admitted Gonzalez, who lives a few blocks away.
The teenager added that the experience has been invaluable, in particular, because it taught her to enjoy vegetables — a lesson she now helps pass on to her peers through work on the farm.
“I’m not even going to lie, I didn’t like the words ‘You gotta eat your greens’ at all,” Gonzalez said. “Before I started working there I wasn’t a greens person …I would literally just eat carrots and lettuce. Like, I wasn’t a tomato person. You would not catch me eating collard greens.”
(Photo: Red Hook Community Farm/CP Thornton)
Planting, growing and harvesting fresh produce on the farm provided her more exposure to different vegetables, but it was really the farm’s weekly community meal that changed her mind. “We take about an hour out of time to prepare a meal with food grown from the farm, and that really expanded my horizons,” Gonzalez said. “I really started eating a lot of different thing, like beets, collard greens, kale — I didn’t even know what kale was until we had this little workshop about it about two [or] three years ago.”
Marvey explains that convincing kids to eat healthfully is hard work. “Behavior change ... is very difficult,” he said. “The commercial food industry is several billion dollars in advertising, and so we’re coming up against constant community saturation of images, ideas and marketing of unhealthy food.”
One introductory vegetable that Marvey uses to warm kids up to leafy greens is lemon sorrel. He has the kids munch the tart, tangy green and likens the taste to sourpatch kids.
The hope is that teens like Gonzalez will serve as catalysts and encourage their peers and families to eat fresh produce. For instance, she now encourages her mom to buy kale when they go food shopping together. “I’m trying to get her to come to the market on a Saturday, you know, when she can use her food stamps there,” Gonzalez said.
Marvey added that part of convincing kids to enjoy vegetables is to give them room to have their own opinion about what they do — and don’t — like. “We have a policy on the farm that’s ‘Don’t yuck my yum,’ so people are allowed to not like food, which also super important,” he said.
That policy stems, in part, from Marvey’s own tastes. “You know, there’s lots of vegetables that I just don’t like, but I got turned on to kohlrabi this year," he said. Marvey’s change of heart with regards to the vegetable is a symbolic success for the Red Hook Community Farm: He decided he liked it after sampling a kohlrabi and apple salad made by the kids on the farm. “I think it really is that exposure [that makes a difference],” Marvey said.