Rockaway Land, Food & Health

  Far Rockaway is a federally-labeled food desert, meaning that residents do not have consistent access to fresh fruits and vegetables or healthy food options. Lack of income can make it even more difficult for residents to navigate a food desert.   Especially on a peninsula where the median income is $29,000, the cheapest option available is often the least healthy choice.

Far Rockaway is a federally-labeled food desert, meaning that residents do not have consistent access to fresh fruits and vegetables or healthy food options. Lack of income can make it even more difficult for residents to navigate a food desert. Especially on a peninsula where the median income is $29,000, the cheapest option available is often the least healthy choice.

Aziz Dehkan, the executive director of NYC Community Garden Coalition, believes that the term “food desert” doesn’t fully express what Far Rockaway is facing. “This is a food apartheid. It’s done intentionally. People could provide food, but they choose not to,” explained Dehkan. Dehkan contends that developers would rather displace current residents  — and redevelop after they’re gone — than invest in providing healthy food options to them. The consequences are clear. According to a community health report from St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, Far Rockaway residents are disproportionately obese compared to Queens and NYC residents — which leads to higher rates of heart disease and diabetes. Rockaway residents die from heart disease at twice the citywide rate.

Urban farms and community gardens offer an alternative vision. On previously vacant city-owned lots, a few small groups are growing the fresh fruits and veggies they can’t find in bodegas — and at better quality than they can find at Far Rockaway few grocery stores. The Advocate interviewed growers from four urban farms and gardens in the area to learn about the relationship between growing food, impacting community health, and using public land.

 
Each on a half-acre of land or less, they are small but mighty: a single 10x10 meter plot can provide most of a household’s total yearly vegetable needs, including much of the household’s nutritional requirements for vitamins A, C, and B complex and iron.

Each space has different ways of growing fresh produce for their community. Edgemere Farms (headed by Matthew Sheehan) and Bedstuy Coalition Against Hunger’s Healing Garden (directed by Jacob Okam) are located side by side on a single acre of land and operate like commercial farms, growing as much produce as possible. In contrast, the RYTF Urban Farm & Garden, (directed by Dekendra Dazzell), and Seagirt Community Garden (directed by Sharon Keller), offer raised beds for community members to grow their own produce. Edgemere Farms and the RYTF Urban Farm both sell their produce at weekly farm stands, while Seagirt Community Garden and the Healing Garden give most of their crops away.

All four growers emphasized positive effects from just seeing the vibrant green plant life through the fences — each one feels like an oasis from city concrete and asphalt. For Matt Sheehan, it’s impossible to quantify the ways that urban growing can help a community. “There are the psychological benefits of green space...this is a good, safe space where young kids come over and hang out..older people stop by, share stories”.

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Once people invest in these growing spaces, the community benefits are widespread. Sharon Keller described gardeners learning new skills to take advantage of their plots at Seagirt Community Garden, and sharing that information with their families and neighbors. After living in Rockaway for years, she is starting to see the changes sparked by urban gardening. “People are becoming more cognizant of the fact that whatever they eat turns into the fuel for their body - food is life!” said Keller.

At the RYTF Urban Farm, Dekendra Dazzell works with volunteers and the community on a regular basis. “The Farm is comprised of an communal area for members of the community to hang out and enjoy the space. We also have learning beds, to teach youth, in the organization, about what it means to be food savvy and give back to your community.” said Dazzell. Creating an environment for the youth to learn how to eat healthy is one of the major benefits of these urban farms.

A study on the effects of urban gardens in communities listed a variety of health impacts, including increased food access & security, increased fruit & vegetable consumption, improved food & health literacy, and improved mental & physical well-being of community members. Jacob Okam, the Healing Garden, highlighted three main positive factors generated by urban growing: environmental benefits of “controlled waste”, nutritional and taste benefits of “food that is held here” rather than transported, and the economic benefits of providing “less expensive food.”

Unfortunately, not everyone in the area is accessing those benefits. When the growers sell their produce, the people who buying it aren’t necessarily from the neighborhoods that the food was grown in. At Edgemere Farms, “buyers are currently 60% not from here,” despite financial assistance and community outreach. Even at a lower price point, the weekly farm stand at RYTF’s Urban Farm & Garden doesn’t draw as many local low-income buyers as they would like. The lack of connection between these urban farms and the surrounding community can make it complicated for residents to actually eat the fresh produce that these spaces provide. There is a dire need for healthy food education, so that people are informed and motivated to eat fresh produce that they’ve never before had access to.

Sheehan realizes that the lack of resources leads to bad eating habits, and it takes more than different food being available to change the culture in a community. “There’s pizza, chinese and one or two Caribbean places… that’s it. I think having more food options around would drive the conversation.” said Sheehan. Every grower pointed to a need for more community education around food and diet. Okam connected the concern directly to community health. “They need to eat vegetables, it helps with diabetes, heart disease...instead of only eating chicken, pizza.”

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Urban farms can be an extremely effective method for combating the harms of living in a food desert, but they need support. All four growers reported that they have more demand than they can satisfy with their current resources. For instance, Okam knows precisely how many more people he can feed with more space. “There’s so many buildings here, but people need food! I would love to have six acres of space to grow fresh food.” said Okam. Both Seagirt Community Garden and the RYTF Urban Farm are located right next to currently underutilized lots. “We have such a high membership list of people who want to garden! I won’t say we deserve that space next door, but we need it!” said Keller.

Further, NYC Parks Department restrictions can make it difficult for urban farms and gardens to raise the funds necessary to sustain their operations. “We are trying to figure out what NYC Parks and GreenThumb means by ‘supporting urban agriculture’. That’s the main question. And I don’t think they know.” said Sheehan. Currently, the city only has one official designation for all urban growing on public land: “community garden”. That means urban farms, which grow and sell (or give away) large amounts of fresh food, exist in a kind of legal limbo — making them vulnerable to changing legislation. For hundreds of urban growing spaces in NYC, not yet clear what the future will look like.

One concrete step that the growers believe the city can take to support their work is to help educate people about healthy eating and fresh foods. Dazzell, Keller, and Sheehan all emphasized the importance of conversations with the community about healthy eating habits, and how to use the fruits and vegetables that they grow. But it can’t be 100% on the farmers to create healthy habits in their community — they don’t have the capacity or time. If NYC Parks Department provided programs and workshops at these urban farms and gardens — teaching people what to do with fresh vegetables and actually doing the work to change eating habits in communities like Rockaway — the effects of urban growing could be boosted exponentially. A change can’t be implemented in a community that has not been educated on sustaining a proper diet. The city can partner with urban growers by providing the tools and knowledge necessary for all residents to take full advantage of the healthy food they grow.

Gabby Preston was an active contributor to this article.