The Victor Ibarra who came to work on the Bushwick Campus Farm last summer is not the same kid who is working there today. At least to hear D. Rooney tell it, Ibarra, 18, has a whole new body posture, she says—“he physically opened up”—among many other things. Ibarra also improved his academics, joined the student council, and became an employee of BK ROT, a youth-led, door-to-door compost collecting business in Brooklyn, where he’s been promoted from bike duty to compost manager. He’s also taken on a leadership role in student carpentry projects, with Rooney’s gentle support.
Since 2011, the Bushwick Campus Farm has been growing fresh foods on the unlikely grounds of the former Bushwick High School and teaching students about much more than fresh food. Rooney, an educator at the Farm, can point to anecdotes and stories about the Farm’s success, from her gut, but she’s working on putting together hard data to help document the Farm’s impact.
The Farm sprawls across one area of the large schoolyard, and includes a work area, a greenhouse, shaded picnic tables, and dozens of beds of fresh vegetables and herbs. With the hot summer sun and open sky of the neighborhood, it feels wild and overgrown.
Foods that reflect the taste of local residents, such as Callaloo, a Caribbean green, and hot peppers, mix with staples such as kale, collard greens, eggplants, and tomatoes. These products are harvested and sold at four local Bushwick farmer’s markets run by EcoStation:NY. Young people involved in the program may harvest food to take home, which provides both economic benefit and an opportunity for families to eat fresh produce on a regular basis.
The Bushwick Campus Farm is a project of EcoStation:NY, a nonprofit organization that uses food and sustainable agriculture to “educate, inspire, and empower.” The Farm’s programs help young people to develop their self-confidence through community initiatives and experiential learning about urban farming. Through their participation, students come to understand healthy food choices and the importance of food justice for their communities—communities that often have high rates of lifestyle-related diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
“It has made me change how I eat and think and to be more responsible for my body. And when I go to the grocery store I am more responsible for what I buy,” said Iyeshima Harris, of her five years’ involvement in the Farm. Harris’s knowledge helped her to provide guidance to her father about healthier food choices following his heart attack last year, she said. A recent graduate of the Academy for Environmental Leadership, Harris will attend York College in Jamaica, Queens beginning this fall and wants to become a research scientist in the biomedical field.
Involvement in the Farm also provided Harris and fellow graduate Benita Darius with the opportunity to engage in community organizing and sharpen their public speaking skills. Both students participated in the Youth Food Council’s campaign for universal free school lunch. They and other students have testified at City Council hearings twice, campaigned at local farmer’s markets, led social media efforts, and presented information to Letitia James, New York City’s Public Advocate. When leaving that meeting, they had the chance to speak with Mayor de Blasio himself.
“We are the face of Ecostation:NY,” said Darius, a graduate of the Bushwick High School for Social Justice who will attend the College of Staten Island, where she intends to study Nutrition and Political Science. Both Darius and Harris now serve as paid Youth Managers for the first time this summer, and are responsible for coordinating summer youth programs such as the Farmer’s Market work schedule. They plan to maintain their ties to the Farm and EcoStation:NY even after starting college.
The Farm’s philosophy gels well with that of the four small public schools located in the traditional red brick high school building—The Bushwick School for Social Justice, The Academy for Urban Planning, the Academy of Environmental Leadership, and the Brooklyn School for Math and Science. It was teachers at the schools that share space at 400 Irving Avenue that invited EcoStation:NY to become part of an environment focused on empowerment. Food justice seemed a logical extension of the academic work, said Rooney.
In addition to volunteer and summer opportunities for students, schools also teach academics at the Farm. The Academy of Environmental Leadership has three Sustainable Agriculture classes, and the Bushwick School for Social Justice has developed an Environmental Justice class as well as Earth Science classes that utilize the Farm, said Rooney.
There has been growing local interest in supporting the Farm and its larger efforts. Emily Lew, a manager at Momo Sushi Shack, a Bogart Street restaurant, said her restaurant buys produce from the Farm regularly. “We want to help local businesses as well as carry local, seasonal food. It’s really important to us.”
Momo Sushi Shack also held a one-day fundraiser for EcoStation:NY’s Farm-in-the-Sky project, donating 10 percent of revenues to its Kickstarter campaign. In addition to the $31,389 raised in that campaign, Ecostation:NY received a United Way grant for a garden that will be located on the rooftop of a new, privately owned building on Starr Street in Bushwick. Fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden, which is hoped to be the first of several Bushwick farms-in-the-sky, will benefit a program for senior residents run by the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizen Council, and may also supply EcoStation’s:NY’s farmer’s markets.
Rooney, who is 35 and sports a tan from her many hours outdoors, is committed to her work with young people on the Bushwick Campus Farm. In fact, she has three other jobs to ensure that commitment. While her official title is co-farm manager, Farm-in-the-Sky, “I could be a freelance educator, freelance carpenter, or private cook, any day of the week,” she said. “Recently I have done all in the same day.” She’s also Interim Outreach Coordinator at Five Borough Farm, a project of the Design Trust for Public Space, a nonprofit organization studying the impact of urban farming in NYC.
Rooney said she’s on the team that is collecting data and devising metrics that can be used to measure the impact of such projects as the Bushwick Campus Farm. “All this needs to be quantified,” she said, recognizing that funders and policy makers will ultimately be influenced by results rather than anecdotal observation. Until then, she’ll stick with her gut.