It’s a hot, muggy Thursday morning in Brownsville, Brooklyn and there is already a small group of people gathering in the cul-de-sac of Howard Houses. At first glance, it just appears to be a group of friends, but just beyond the crowd, a burst of green comes into view—a tomato plant juts outward, looming large over the other crops.
There in Howard Houses, an area some residents liken to a “food swamp,” members of Green City Force have helped transform what was once a bare field into twelve plots of vegetables and herbs ranging from collard greens and cilantro to bok choy and kale. The harvest has been so reliable that upwards of 70 people come each week to collect their share of the weekly harvest and most of the goods are gone hours before the farm stand closes for the day.
The Corps Members are from Green City Force, an AmeriCorps organization that engages, recruits, and trains 18- to 24-year-old NYCHA residents and pays them a stipend to volunteer on environmentally sustainable and energy-efficiency service initiatives at Housing Authority sites. Over the course of 10-months, Urban Farm Corps Members provide 40 hours a week in service where they receive rigorous job training and career planning support.
At Green City Force, they serve full-time on teams, gaining work-like experience in the field four days a week and acquire academic skills in the classroom one day a week as they work toward technical certifications and success on college exams. They earn a monthly stipend, support for finding a job or getting into college, and membership in an active alumni community after they graduate. Many go on to careers in farming, composting, and other environmentally-friendly careers.
“There are so many specializations and trainings,” said Carson Ross, Team Leader for Green City Force. “Corps Members working on the farms learn maintenance, planting, water management, compost, and food production.”
The Howard Houses farm, one of four throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, produces more than 250 pounds of produce a week for distribution to neighboring residents. The farms are one component of Building Healthy Communities, a multimillion-dollar public-private partnership led by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Strategic Partnerships and the Fund for Public Health in New York City to increase access to physical activity and healthy food, and improve public safety in 12 densely populated and historically underserved New York neighborhoods.
And at Howard Houses, the desire to learn new skills is palpable. While some Corps Members collect produce and work closely with volunteers, others pick produce and share tricks of the trade with their peers.
Today, Daniel Silva, 19, Corps Member, is working closely with Corps Member Nordesia Bowman, 23, as they pick a second round of crops. They discuss the difference between male and female green peppers and imagine which misshapen eggplant would be the best mascot for Green City Force.
“It’s better than a lot of jobs someone my age can find nowadays,” said Bowman. “Most gigs would have me working a register or standing in one spot all day.”
Silva, who has a son on the way, only has praise for the program. He lists the benefits in rapid succession: “full-time training, certifications, skills building, and you meet new people and make friends.” He lugs the batch of peppers to the assembly line. “Where else is a 19-year-old from NYCHA going to get that kind of job?”
That list of benefits is the backbone of the Green City Force program and what ultimately makes it so successful. Even though Silva’s service time is limited and he and the rest of his 35-member cohort will graduate next spring, he isn’t worried about the next steps.
“By the time I graduate, I’ll either have a job, or I’ll create one for myself.”