Updated: May 14
One man makes a big difference by:
Building urban farms to address food insecurity in underserved neighborhoods.
Providing vulnerable communities access to healthy produce.
Educating and empowering youth to make better food decisions to break the circle of poverty.
“Education is how you break the circle of poverty."
- Tony Hillery -
Tony Hillery had a successful Limousine company when the financial crisis happened. In 2011, he began volunteering at a public elementary school in Harlem. After seeing the children’s living conditions and lack of healthy food options, he decided to address food insecurity in this underserved neighborhood. By converting more than a dozen vacant lots in Harlem into urban farms, Harlem grown, his non-profit organization, helps nourish food-insecure children. Tony invites students from underfunded schools to get their hands dirty working on the farm while learning about healthy, sustainable eating, as well as collaboration. Thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables are grown every year, which is all given to the kids and their families.
Hillery's work helps address an severe ongoing crisis in New York City, where more than 114,000 children are homeless and about one in five is food insecure, according to the Food Bank of New York City.
By Tony Hillery as told to Chefs for Impact
How did Harlem Grown start?
“It started from an observation. I’m not from Harlem and when I started volunteering in the neighborhood, I met with the local communities. I realized that kids go to school there, not only for academics but also for their daily meals. It bothered me that kids couldn’t identify a single vegetable nor eat it. Unfortunately, where we work, half of the children we serve are homeless. Yes, homelessness in New York City. Their parents are not lazy people, sitting at home waiting for food stamps. While 93% of them work and have full time jobs, they are still homeless. I started asking myself, how do we make this change? I’m a very persistent guy who never took ‘no’ as an answer. That’s how Harlem Grown started nine years ago.”
What is Harlem Grown doing?
“We plant fruits and vegetables but we grow healthy children and sustainable communities. We serve about 4500 students a year; our mission is focused on kids aged 5-11, but some kids love it so much that they keep coming back. Nine years ago, if you had given a hundred pounds of kale to these families, I guarantee you that 95lb would be thrown out. They wouldn’t know what it was, or how to prepare it. It is not as simple as ‘eating healthy’. It’s about education.”
How do you educate?
“If I grew millions of pounds of fresh produce, that wouldn’t change the community. While it may change some dietary requirements, it wouldn’t change the underlying condition of generational poverty. When we grow the food, we see the kids taking pride in growing their own plants and eating it. And around 80% of the time, they like it. The systemic issue is that they can’t buy the same produce at affordable prices in Harlem. When a family of four gets $280 a month in food stamps, they can either get two bags of fresh food at Wholefoods or 16 bags of junk food at the local bodega. The second option is much more appealing as it can last the month.
At Harlem Grown, we hire people from the community – parents, older brothers and sisters – and pay them fair wages with health care benefits. They start as a farmer and get promoted up. We pay 18 dollars an hour to start; however, to get the job, they have to go back to school, open a bank account, and learn financial literacy. Today, we have 27 employees who love their jobs. It’s a bottom-up approach. People need to be empowered to become the change they see and need.
In nine years, I have not met one parent who doesn’t want three organic balanced meals per day for their children. The question is how do you get it and what is it? The bodega provides what people want and ask for. If people start asking for kale, they will provide kale. Our goal is to create that demand. After each cooking class, we send the children home with a cookbook. At home they want to show their parents what they’ve learnt and they ask for vegetables to make the recipe. It is working.
Twelve of the kids we served are now in college and we are very proud of that. Is education valuable if you’re not healthy? It all ties together. Education is how you break the circle of poverty.”
What do you grow and how do you grow it?
“Everything we grow is vegetarian. We also have a hen that lays eggs on the farm. On a typical Saturday, the kids come and forage the farm, as well as volunteering and learning how to cook.
We also have a vertical hydroponic system that uses rain water, melted snow, and solar power. It is the second in the world, the original being at the University of Copenhagen. In Denmark, people break in and steal the pumps and the wires; they spray graffiti. In ours, it’s been three years and there has never been a single act of vandalism. The community embraces our work and appreciates what we are doing. Food is a very powerful weapon. Everyone has to eat. We use food as our vehicle for change.”
Covid impacted Harlem communities the hardest. What is the pandemic showing us?
“Covid has shown the world what I’ve been screaming about for the last ten years. Many systemic inequities are exposed by Covid, especially in this country. If you’re living in an underprivileged zip code, no matter how hard you fight or how hard you want to change, it is almost impossible. It is not a coincidence that Harlem is home to some of the most fast-food restaurants and pharmacies per square foot in the entire country. It’s not Covid who killed all the people here, it’s their poor health conditions that are mostly diet-related: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease etc. When I was running my successful business I was fat and was on high blood pressure and high cholesterol medicine at 45 years old. When I went vegan 7 years ago, I lost 52 pounds. I feel so much better now, and I have no more blood pressure problems. Change happens, but it requires education and support to keep it going. Poor communities stay poor for various reasons: lack of knowledge, and lack of exposure to different neighborhoods. Poverty is their normality.”
How did Harlem Grown navigate these unprecedented times?
“That’s one of my proudest moments. When Covid happened and we were all told to shelter in place, we were in shock because we work in school every day. We felt helpless for the children we were taking care of. The government is very slow but to NYC’s credit: they were very quick to respond. Within 2 days, they came up with the ‘grab and go’ program. That means kids can go to the school everyday and grab a bag of food; on Fridays, they get nine bags filled with sandwiches, cheese, milk and an apple. That’s okay once in a while, but that wasn’t enough for their main diet. I reached out to Chef JJ Johnson from FieldTrip in Harlem. I bought him 400 meals that I took to the homeless shelters. When I posted the initiative on social media, I started receiving donations from all over the world. In total, we received $180,000. We called the program ‘Harlem helping Harlem’. Every penny received went to a local Harlem restaurant, allowing them to keep their kitchen staff working as well as allowing us to feed the people in need. Overall, we delivered 30,000 meals. We went from 1 shelter to 6 of them, as well as going from delivering one day per week to 6 days per week. When the shelter in place was lifted, we went to the same restaurant partners and bought gift cards. For Thanksgiving, we offered these gift cards to our families in need.
These people don’t have high level jobs and can’t work from home. They are essential workers. By reopening the restaurants we not only help the local Harlem economy, but we also help the restaurants, as well as keeping our community working. It is all connected. We were able to pivot in a matter of a day to go from in school to doing this initiative and protecting our people. It was amazing.”
Is this experience going to have any impact on your organization’s mission?
“During Covid we’ve been rewriting our curriculum and our method of teaching food justice, racial and social justice, and advocacy. We want to teach them how to be their own voice instead of relying on people like us coming from outside of the community to help and save them. We want to give them the tools to succeed.”
Where do you see Harlem Grown in 10 years?
“When I started, what really got me was that there were 62,000 homeless children in NYC; today there are 114,000. We’ve been fighting generational poverty in this country for as long as I’m alive, and it’s only getting worse. The typical way that we provide services isn’t working. We need to take a hard look on how we are tempting to implement change.
My goal is that in 10 years there is no need for Harlem Grown and I can retire.”
Learn more about Harlem Grown: http://www.harlemgrown.org/