School is closed, but gardens are growing

June 30, 2020

In a moment where New Yorkers have turned to parks and gardening to ease the mental and emotional strain the Covid-19 pandemic has taken on residents, when the need for education surrounding nutrition and health couldn’t be more critical, the same nonprofits that make green space and nutrition education possible are in danger of going under, while vital city agencies like the New York City Parks Department’s GreenThumb program are facing severe budget cuts.

To date, GrowNYC School Gardens’ program has helped create 824 school gardens, the most in the nation, with a goal of having every New York City school have a garden of its own.

Following the Great Recession in 2010, the School Garden program was founded in partnership with GrowNYC, GreenThumb, and the Department of Education to create sustainable learning gardens in public schools. Since inception, the program has led over 400 free gardening workshops, hosted annual giveaways for seeds, soil, plants, lumber, and tools, and funded 650 yearly mini grants to make school gardens accessible.

The gardens come in a range of shapes and sizes. From pollinator gardens in outdoor raised beds to indoor hydroponics labs producing 25,000 pounds of greens, all share the goals of connecting kids with the natural world, inspiring healthy eating, and building community.

The end of the fiscal year is looming, and nonprofits like GrowNYC School Gardens face a reckoning. Because of government budget cuts, many are letting staff go and slashing program offerings just when the pandemic has generated an all-time high in gardening interest. In early June, GrowNYC’s Beginner Gardener Intensive, a free week of virtual gardening classes, drew over 1300 participants.

In New York City, access to school gardens is not equal. Green space is limited. Lack of resources, garden knowledge, support, funding, and community involvement are the primary reasons school gardens fail. Schools in socially affluent neighborhoods often have active PTAs to support maintenance and fundraising, while schools in lower socioeconomic areas often do not. These factors, coupled with the environmental challenges of growing in New York--rats, contamination, legal obstacles to obtain growing spaces-- make non-profit partners essential.

This is especially true for schools in underserved communities.

If we look at communities disproportionately impacted by Covid-19, they have the following in common: all are located in low socioeconomic areas with the least access to green space and the highest rate of diet-related diseases, primarily impacting people of color.

And yet the possibilities for gardens to flatten the curve in inequality are endless. In Corona, Queens, the garden at PS 14 was built in a concrete schoolyard after a science teacher, Bianca Biblioni, attended a Raised Bed Building workshop and picked up tools and seedlings from GrowNYC giveaway events outside of school hours. The garden is used for outdoor yoga, as a performance space for band and violin, and to teach culturally responsive-sustaining STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics.

For Bianca, the garden has been pivotal in engaging students with disabilities and English Language Learners because her students can observe concepts that are difficult to grasp in textbooks. Through the garden, Bianca introduces the ways in which plants are used across cultural diasporas from the Huichol people of Mexico to the Ashanti people of West Africa. They have also grown corn, beans, and squash, known as the “Three Sisters” in Native American culture, to learn about Lenape companion planting.

And last year, after the tragic passing of a student, classmates grew lavender, lemon balm, and mint for the school’s crisis center, where scent was used to soothe grieving students.

Without support from community partners, Bianca says the garden would not exist for her Title One school.

“I’m not sure how we would fund the garden, let alone train future teachers as garden leaders without partners like GrowNYC...Our kids would miss opportunities to connect our garden to the wider world.” Before Covid-19, nutrition education programs were already lacking in forty four percent of all elementary schools citywide according to A Is For Apple, a study of nutrition education programming conducted by Teachers College in March 2018.

Cutting garden programs erases years of work by dedicated volunteers like Bianca, making it disproportionately harder for under-resourced schools to receive the free materials they rely on to keep gardens growing, furthering the gap in education inequality. It is vital that our elected leaders, foundations, and individuals invest in these outdoor learning labs and nutrition education programs now more than ever. The health and wellbeing of our city’s children depends on it.

Author: Kristin Fields is the Director of GrowNYC’s School Gardens program, a former high school English teacher, and the author of two novels. All opinions are her own.

Farmers Markets Deemed Essential Businesses

March 24, 2020
Posted in GrowNYC

Dear GrowNYC Greenmarket Community,

Many of you have heard recent calls by elected officials to further increase social distancing at parks and other outdoor gathering places. Be assured that GrowNYC is committed to implementing stringent social distancing at our food access points; it is a vital action everyone must take in our shared efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Also please know that the safety of our customers, our staff, our farmers – and all New Yorkers - remains our number-one concern during this extremely difficult time. These are not just words. We have taken (and will continue to take) decisive action to create the safest places to access fresh produce. We have been ahead of the curve. Our current protocols are being used as a model for farmers markets across the nation.

To give just a few examples, we have already banned the public from touching produce, and we require that only gloved farm staff handle the selection and bagging of products. We’ve discontinued product sampling and reconfigured our markets, barricading food from direct public access and dictating additional space for social distancing. (A full list of our current food safety and social distancing protocols, as well as those we are in the process of implementing, are listed below.)

And, with the support of the city, we are doing more each day to increase social distancing. This includes spreading our farmer tents further apart; taking over additional public space to expand market footprints; increasing safety signage; and redeploying staff from our other programs to enforce social distancing. We are working hard on all of these and other safety protocols. In fact, GrowNYC is temporarily pausing (for two days only) its Greenmarket operations until this Wednesday, March 25, 2020. During this time, Greenmarket staff will prepare additional measures we can take to ensure your safety, as well as that of our farmers and staff.

While it may be easy to confuse our essential operations at parks and other public spaces with non-essential public activities that have been prohibited or discouraged, it is a simple fact that people must eat -- even in a crisis, especially a crisis that has shuttered many usual food access points.

Healthy, fresh produce is more vital today than it ever has been. For example, our markets process over $1 million in SNAP/EBT (formally known as food stamps) and Health Bucks (a city SNAP incentive program) each year, as well as $2 million in Farmers Market Nutrition vouchers, which serve WIC recipients and seniors. These programs are only redeemable at farmers markets like Greenmarkets and cannot be used online or at grocery stores. (Go here for more information on these programs.)

It is important to note that under Governor Cuomo’s recent Executive Order, food outlets like our Greenmarket Farmers Markets and GrowNYC’s other food access outlets are designated as an “essential business.” (A copy of the governing language is copied below, and the full Order can be found here.)

We are in constant contact with state and city health officials, and we continue to adapt and modify our operations. We believe that open-air farmers markets, with transparent chains of custody, reduced travel times from farm to table, and proper safety and social distancing, are critically important places for the public to access the food they need. And we are making them safer and better each day.

Our farmers and staff appreciate the outpouring of support that we’ve received over the past several days on social media regarding our intense efforts to keep our markets open as a way for New Yorkers to get fresh, healthy food during this crisis. We’re also taking note of all concerns that have been expressed and folding them into our evolving safety measures and policies.

These are difficult times for everyone. It’s important that we all support each other and treat each other with respect and kindness.

Thank you for your support in these challenging times.

We invite you to contact us with any questions or concerns at info@grownyc.org.

 

Stay safe and be well.

Marcel Van Ooyen

President/CEO GrowNYC

 

GrowNYC’s/Greenmarket’s Safety and Social Distancing Protocols:

In addition to the already implemented safety protocols listed below, we are planning further safety measures. At all markets where we have the ability to spread out (down a sidewalk or into other adjacent vacant space), Producers’ tents will be separated at least 10 feet from one another. For those markets where this is not an option (like the Union Square Greenmarket), we will reconfigure markets and limit the number of customers shopping at any given time. At all markets we will provide clear demarcations to keep shoppers at least 6 feet apart, and we will engage additional staff on the ground to help customers and Producers navigate these new systems.

Already implemented safety protocols:

  • Only Producers and their staff may handle products. Customers must not touch any produce or products until after they have purchased (as mentioned above)
  • Market staff will separate farm stand spaces with at least 2 feet of distance between the tents, more where possible, to reduce congestion
  • There is no sampling of products at markets until further notice
  • There is no selling of apple cider by the cup
  • All Producers must wear protective gloves
  • All farm stands must use vinyl or plastic table covers for easy sanitizing
  • All producers need to be sanitizing their stands regularly, primarily wiping down tables, terminals, cash boxes, etc.
  • All GrowNYC staff and Producers must stay home if they are sick
  • All staff processing credit/debit/snap transactions must wear protective gloves
  • We will provide hand sanitizer at our market manager stations

Please respect our market staff on the front lines and the farmers behind the stands who are coming into the city to feed us.

Governor's Executive Order

Earlier today, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced he is signing the "New York State on PAUSE" executive order, a 10-point policy to assure uniform safety for everyone. It includes a new directive that all non-essential businesses statewide must close in-office personnel functions effective at 8PM on Sunday, March 22. Guidance on essential services under the executive order is as follows:

ESSENTIAL BUSINESSES OR ENTITIESincluding any for profit or non-profit, regardless of the nature of the service, the function they perform, or its corporate or entity structure, are not subject to the in-person restriction.

For purposes of Executive Order 202.6, "Essential Business," means:

4. Essential Retail, Including:

  • grocery stores including all food and beverage stores
  • pharmacies
  • convenience stores
  • farmer's market
  • gas stations
  • restaurants/bars (but only for take-out/delivery)
  • hardware and building material stores

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