‘We might plant fruits and vegetables but what we really grow are people’

There I was, scrolling through my Facebook feed, and there was Humans of New York telling yet another amazing story – this time, about Harlem Grown and the man who began it in 2011, Tony Hillery. I loved this story, told in three blog posts, so I wanted to know more.

Harlem Grown Dec. 6, 2016 Storymakers 2017

He was, in his own words, a big shot who lost it all in the financial crash. One day, reading about underfunded schools, he hopped on the subway and went to 135th Street in Harlem. “I couldn’t have been more arrogant. I walked through the doors of the first elementary school I could find, asked for the principal, and said: ‘I’m here to try to break the cycle of poverty.’”

“It didn’t make sense to me that we were living in one of the richest cities in the country, and we had such a disparity in education,” he explained in a 2017 interview. “I really didn’t understand it. I’m a show-me kind of guy, so I started volunteering at an elementary school in Harlem. That’s what did it. That’s what prompted everything else.”

He was assigned to the lunchroom, and he showed up five days a week. He went table to table, talking to the kids. “They listened to me. They called me ‘Mr. Tony.’ At home I was just ‘Dad.’ …. I had nothing to give, nothing to promise. But they acted like I was Santa Claus.” One of the things he learned was that most of them had no idea where food came from, and when he learned that almost half of them lived in homeless shelters, “it tore me up”..

“The children referenced the abandoned lot across the street as the haunted garden. There was a lot of unsavory things happening in there. The fence was overgrown. You couldn’t see inside.” He contacted the Parks Department, got the license and the key, and started hauling out junk, piece by piece. It took six weeks.

“The kids kept asking me what I was planning to do, but I had no idea. Then one morning a little girl tugged on my shoulder. A tiny little thing with glasses so big. Her name was Nevaeh. ‘Heaven’ spelled backwards. And she said: ‘Mr. Tony, why don’t we plant something?” So they did – and that was the start of the community phenomenon that is Harlem Grown. And now her mother, Latonya Assanah, is the full-time Agriculture Director, having gone from parent to volunteer and now staff member.

Tony had never grown anything before in his life. But after school, “the kids would come over and help me. I bought 400 seedlings, and we had 400 students, and made a ceremony of it. Every child planted their seedling, and that was the start of Harlem Grown.”

In 2020, Harlem Grown partnered with the Lenox Terrace complex to open a new 2,000-square-foot farm and office space, allowing it to feed more low-income families and their students. And on May 26th this year, “Harlem Grown, the nonprofit dedicated to inspiring youth to lead healthy and ambitious lives through mentorship and hands-on education in urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition, celebrated its 10th year with new dual leadership roles and a resolute focus on food justice in Harlem.”

In 10 years, it has accomplished a lot – “12 urban agriculture facilities, five school partners, tens of thousands of students who know healthy habits.” Says Nicole Engel, the organization’s new executive director, “I see urban agriculture as a unique tool to drive impact that enriches children and can help solve some of our country’s most intractable issues.”

There is a summer camp program, Saturdays on the Farm, educational farm tours and an after-school program at Riverton Square. “In 2018 alone, 4,257 children visited its sites to help plant vegetables and learn about how they grow. Volunteers and employees harvested 6,381 pounds of produce last year, all freely given out at a farm stand they run every Saturday.”

Kids learn about wildlife, too. “Program staff install native plants at some of their farms, helping bees, butterflies and other pollinators flourish among the crops. Farmers, educators and guides at Harlem Grown sites also teach school groups and other visitors about urban wildlife and the value of pollinators to ecosystems. One site even demonstrates beekeeping and offers tastes of its colony’s honey.

There are 39 elementary schools in Harlem, and Harlem Grown works with six of them, so there are 33 more to go. And, having learned about this amazing organization, I am quite sure they will get there.