Bushwick Students Embrace Urban Farming, Fight Obesity

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The Bushwick Campus Farm was founded in 2011 by students and teachers from the Bushwick Educational Campus. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

On an unseasonably warm fall afternoon in Bushwick, Brooklyn, students kneel over earthen beds, dig up the roots of withering tomato plants, sow seeds into chocolatey soil and prepare empty beds for flower bulbs and winter crops like garlic.

The high schoolers, joined by adult volunteers, are working at the Bushwick Campus Farm, a unique urban farm project on the school grounds of Bushwick Educational Campus, a massive facility that houses four public schools with a joint enrollment of about 1,200.

In a neighborhood identified as an obesity hotspot and where access to competitively priced fresh fruits and vegetables is a challenge, teenage urban farmers are learning healthy habits and about the complexities of growing their own food.

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Maggie Cheney (center), who runs the Bushwick Campus Farm, explains worm composting to an Urban Farming Class. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

A study published by the New York Department of Health in 2007 found that 1 in 3 high school students in Bushwick was obese or overweight, while 1 in 6 was obese. Moreover, 8 of 10 adolescents and more than 9 of 10 adults eat less then the five recommended servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Making small strides against this neighborhood trend, Bushwick Campus Farm has impacted students’ lives in a very real way.

“I can’t look at a bag of chips the same way,” Daniliz Capellan, 15, said. Capellan was a full-time, paid summer employee at the farm and associated farmer’s market. While school is in session, she still enjoys helping out at the market and the farm when she can.

“Food Swamp, that’s one of the words we learned,” she said. “[Areas that] have supermarkets but they only carry food that’s unhealthy.”

Students from a morning Urban Farm class are put in charge of watering the garden, while the rest of the class works on composting. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

Students from a morning Urban Farm class are put in charge of watering the garden, while the rest of the class works on composting. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

Jamoe Clopton, 15, started going to the Campus Farm as part of an Earth Science Class. Now he mainly helps out at the farmer’s markets on weekends and after school.

“I liked it so much I decided to stay. Everybody is so nice and friendly and neighborly,” Jamoe said.

Jamoe said that his attitude towards vegetables has changed since getting involved with the farm.

“Some of this stuff,” Jamoe said, gesturing at the heaps of veggies displayed at the farmer’s market stand, “I would have said no way. But some of it’s spicy; some is sweet.”

He’s developed a fondness for one vegetable in particular.

“Mushrooms, I never got them,” he said. “They just looked dirty.”

Now mushrooms are a key ingredient in one of his favorite meals: mushroom omelets with onion, tomato and milk.

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Some students are enamored by worms, others cringe. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/ Voices of NY.)

For Cheyanne Smith, 16, working at the farm has helped her understand the role that healthy food plays in her ability to succeed in school.

“You need healthy food, stuff that’s from the earth, to survive,” Cheyanne said. “Cause if you don’t have that, you don’t have the mindset to stay focused in school. And if you can’t concentrate in school, you’re not going to get the high grades you want.”

Benia Darius, 17, offered another lesson she had learned from the farm.

“Before [I didn’t] know that there’s seasonal fruits and vegetables,” Darius said. “Where [our] foods are coming from, cause strawberries and mangos they’re not coming from the tri-state area. They’re coming all the way from California…other countries, not even America.”

In 2011 when students and principals at the Bushwick Educational Campus decided they wanted to convert an abandoned, trash-filled section of their property into a farm, they reached out to EcoStation:NY for help. The Bushwick-based, food justice and urban farming nonprofit  founded in 2007, already managed a handful of community gardens in the neighborhood.

Maggie Cheney, the director of 
Farms & Education
 for EcoStation:NY, who runs the campus farm, estimated that around 300 students help out at the farm a week watering, harvesting, planting, doing carpentry and whatever other daily tasks need to be attended to.

“There are so many students and they come from all different backgrounds,” she said. “Some are like ‘no way, it’s dirty,’ but they end up loving it. There  are other people that immediately gravitate to it and love it from the start.”

Cheney recalled how pleased she was when students organized an event to showcase all the work they had done during the summer to the school principals. “They were phenomenally articulate about the entire program,” Cheney said. “I was super proud of them. When I can see them leading workshops and teaching, that’s my favorite part.”

The enthusiasm for urban farming that began at Bushwick Campus Farm has bubbled over into the broader community. Last April, Make the Road New York, a leading civic advocacy group in Bushwick, turned their abandoned splotch of land on Myrtle and Grove Street into a farm with help from Bushwick Educational Campus students and EcoStation:NY.

Five farmers markets throughout the week in various Bushwick locations make sure that produce grown at the Campus Farm goes back to the neighborhood. A small group of students are selected for the summer employment program where they are paid to work at the farm and at farmer’s markets full time throughout the summer.

Cheney recalled one of her proudest moments at the farm when students organized an event to showcase all the work they had done during the summer to the schools principals. "They were phenomenally articularte about the entire program," Cheney said. "I was super pround of them. When I can see them leading workshops and teaching, that’s my favorite part."

(Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY

While the farm encourages some students to form healthier eating habits, D. Rooney, 34, who’s volunteered at the farm since March of 2012, argued that it provided much more.

“It’s not a classroom. It’s not comprised of four walls and a teacher,” Rooney said. “It’s an opportunity for the kids to breath some fresh air, [and] have a unique understanding of where food comes from.”

Rooney recalled students emerging from their shells, socializing better, improving their English skills, excelling in areas like carpentry and fulfilling leadership roles.

“I can’t say the farm is the whole reason, but if you give students a chance to excel, a different opportunity that’s not writing a book report or passing a test, it makes a difference.”

To get involved with Bushwick Campus Farm visit EcoStation:NY’s website. Or to join in the fun right away, this Sunday, October 27, EcoStation:NY and several other Bushwick organizations are hosting Calabazafest, a pumpkin carving, food and costume extravaganza at Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick.

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