In late October of 2014, Allison Walent and I were chosen as the first Organic Valley representation for participation in what is known as “In Good Company.” In Good Company (IGC) was founded by Clif Bar in 2008 and it has evolved to be a collaborative program in which many businesses come together for the greater good to find community solutions through projects that are focused on food, housing, and environmental restoration. Our project was centered on Taqwa Community Farm in the Highbridge neighborhood, located in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Before describing what we accomplished during our project, it is important to familiarize oneself with a place that many have only heard about, or seen on television. Part one of this three-part series will cover the issues and the cause for why our project focused on a part of New York City that many may never visit or experience.
First, here is a little word-association game:
- What are the first three things that come to mind when you think of New York City?
- Now, try a trio of words to describe Manhattan.
- Finally, a threesome of notions in regards to South Bronx?
Did any responses resemble each other? Many answers for the first two questions could be similar, as the stereotypical viewpoint of the” Big Apple” tends to have more similarities with Manhattan itself – its amazing skyline, posh living areas, beautiful parks, historic landmarks, affluent residents, and even gaudy lifestyle that some Manhattans may or may not enjoy. Regardless, across the Harlem River to the east is a much less visited borough, and most certainly not as wealthy of an area, called The Bronx – the birthplace of hip hop, a graffiti uprising, and a historic timeframe in the 1970s labeled “The Bronx is burning.”
So why was Taqwa Community Farm in the Bronx chosen as our project site? Well, there may be an official answer, but after meeting the man who started the farm and has fostered and cared for it over the past 22 years, the answer seems simple – Abu Talib. Talib turned what was a vacant, abandoned, drug-infested, landfill of a city lot into an urban paradise within the concrete playground of The Bronx. Amid such adversity in the early ‘90s, he had one goal in mind: create a farm that would allow fellow High Bridge residents access to quality fresh produce and eggs. While you’ll see in the next two parts that he succeeded, let’s take a look at the adversities that not only he had to persist through to this day, but the whole of South Bronx has had to persevere through its history…
Social justice was the main culprit that all people from the Bronx had to deal with since the start. The Oxford Dictionary defines social justice as “Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” Perhaps the real issues were the injustices, or the unfair and undeserved desicions being made to the people, land, and water of South Bronx. Ray Figueroa, Jr., a political activist and founder of Brook Park, presented several examples of social [in]justice at play in the Bronx, including environmental, economical, and food injustice.
Environmental injustice was easily recognizable. The Bronx was home to one of the largest healthcare hazardous waste destruction facilities, until it was closed in 2009 after six years of protest and strife. There is an abnormally high rate of asthma due to heavy truck traffic in the Bronx, as it is home to many of the main throughways of the city. The Bronx River, which runs north to south in the middle of the borough, has been polluted for years and people cannot swim or drink from it – more to come in Part Two about the Bronx River.
Economic injustice was even easier to notice. With the rolling elevations of South Bronx, one can see the skyline and the monstrosity of Manhattan. Before being realigned into a different Congressional District in 2013, the Highbridge neighborhood was part of the poorest Congressional district in the nation. One of the most expensive ballparks in the world, the new Yankee Stadium, is found merely two blocks from Taqwa. While spectators pay hundreds of dollars for a seat to watch the Pinstripes, residents in the same neighborhood scramble to pay for fresh produce. To accentuate that notion, the largest produce supplier in the world, Hunts Point Produce Market, employs nearly 10,000 workers. According to one of our guides from The Point, Danny Peralta, nearly all the employees live outside of the Bronx. Yet until recently, over 10% of the Bronx’s population was unemployed. That’s nearly 142,000 people who are readily available within walking distance, or a short rail ride, from one of the largest employers in the borough. Timothy Williams from The New York Times wrote an article in 2006 that summarizes the history of economic disparity in the Bronx.
Finally, we come to the nearest and dearest of the injustices in my eyes – food justice. In the very southern tip of South Bronx lies Hunts Point. If you aren’t aware, the majority of this neighborhood is the vast Hunts Point Produce Market (HPPM) – the largest food distribution center in the world (a staggering 113 acres with 1 million square feet of indoor space). Per the NYC Terminal Market website, the HPPM has sales of over $2 billion annually. While there may be grocery stores in Highbridge that supply fresh produce, I never saw one in the 8 days we were there. Several of the residents from the neighborhood who had reserved garden beds at Taqwa said that many people have to either take a taxi, or city bus, to have the opportunity to buy fresh produce, which may or may not be organic. How does this happen when there is a produce market less than five miles away that supplies 210 million packages of fruits and vegetables to nearly 23 million people on the east coast?
So what do social injustices have to do with our In Good Company trip to Taqwa Community Farm? Well, without the background of the neighborhood and of the Bronx, the reasoning behind 22 participants from 17 like-minded companies combining forces to help a local garden in Highbridge neighborhood may not have the same impact for you, the reader, as it did for me, the fortunate participant. As you’ll find out over the next two parts, the experience was once in a lifetime, and certainly not duplicable. While we didn’t solve any of the social justices, or injustices, in our eight days in the Bronx, we hope we left a positive lasting impact on one small area within the Highbridge neighborhood of South Bronx – Taqwa Community Farm.