Urban Farm to Cafeteria Table

By Rachel Perlman

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Hidden in plain sight among the trees of Battery Park and the bustling New York City streets, is Battery Urban Farm. The one-acre, educational farm is open to the public from April to November for organically growing fruits and vegetables. Many of its visitors are school-age children and young adults. Classes come weekly in the fall and spring to learn about sustainability and to harvest produce that will be served in their school cafeterias.

In 2010, Millennium High School’s Environmental Club asked The Battery Conservancy if they could grow vegetables in the park. Instead of a small plot, they were given a farm. Since 2011, the farm has grown into a public space for community gardening.

New York University’s Journalistic Inquiry class had a chance to speak with Lauren Kaplan, Project Coordinator for the Battery Urban Farm about its school programs and the challenges they face in an urban area.

Journalistic Inquiry: How do different schools or classes go about reserving time on the farm?

KAPLAN: We have information on our website. You e-mail me and fill out a form and it’s basically on a first come, first serve basis. For the most part, the same schools that we’ve been working with are the same schools we’ve been working with since the beginning. So when the farm first started we went and we basically reached out to a lot of different schools and the ones that were interested sort of came and started working with us.

Our programs were not what they are now. They’ve developed as a result of the different needs that we saw from those teachers. So some we did a lot of health and guidance and those are the ones that we teach, and some are very independent, especially the ones with older kids like high school and middle school. The process is set up so that anyone can sort of apply, and there’s no cost, but it tends to be that we work with a lot of the same schools for this particular program.

 JI: How many different classes or schools work with the farm?

K: I know that we work with about 11 schools total, combined with the classes we teach and these teacher led classes. Those are the ones that get the regular education, every week or whatever it is. I want to say about eight of those are probably teacher led classes. And some of the schools that we teach also have a farm here too.

JI: These are New York City public schools?

KAPLAN: Yes, the school-visit program is for all schools K through 12, public and private. And the same mostly goes for the teacher-led program. We might be transitioning that more into just public schools. All of our classes that we teach with our farm-educator are K through 3 public schools. And they’re all mostly downtown because they’re the ones that can afford to come every week.

JI: Are the schools that you donate produce to, the same schools that come and take field trips here?

K: They are. I don’t know if they have to be, but so far they have been. And in fact, I think we would like to keep it that way, because then the food has more impact. Schools have to be part of the Garden to School Café program. Which is a program of Grow To Learn, the citywide school-garden initiative, a collaboration of GrowNYC, SchoolFood, and the parks department. Grow To Learn actually offers mini grants and support systems to schools. And so the Garden to School Café program was created to allow food that was grown in school gardens to go to the school cafeteria. Because there’s no selling involved, we don’t have issues with vendor contracts. Whenever you’re trying to change the food coming into your school it’s usually the problem. They’ve extended it not just to gardens on school property, but a community garden that gives a couple of plots to the school, or in our case, an urban farm that is an educational farm. So we are a registered school garden, and because of that, we can give our food to schools that are registered with them.

JI: What kind of challenges do you face being in such an urban area?

K: Well, squirrels are a big pest for us. They are a huge problem. They bury nuts everywhere and they especially love to do it on the beds that we have just raked flat or ones that we’ve just planted. And they’ll come in and they’ll dig a little hole, it disrupts the planting in there all the time. They put peanuts in there, which we don’t need, we’re not trying to grow peanuts, at the moment. And even if we do, we don’t need the squirrels’ help. They will chew holes in the irrigation tape when they’re thirsty and so you’ll have these spurts of water that we have to fix every week. And if you leave your bag out with your lunch in it, they’ll go in and they’ll get it. They’re pretty big pests. They won’t wipe out the whole farm, but they eat tomatoes, they make a mess.

We have a lot of humans coming in and some of them will pick from the plants we were planning on working with kids or giving to schools, so that can be too. People with their dogs in the park are not supposed to have dogs off leashes but they do anyway. Dogs will come in, if they run around the farm, they can really destroy things. So those are some challenges just to the space itself. On the one hand we’re very public and accessible which is great for learning and education and that’s what we want this space to be, but it also means we have those kind of challenges that are difficult to control.

JI: Speaking of challenges, how did you recover from Sandy?

K: The biggest devastation to The Battery Conservancy was actually our office. We were located in a below ground office just over there at 1 New York Plaza. We lost the entire thing, it flooded floor to ceiling. We lost everything that was in the office: all of our files, our documents, our materials, everything. That was the biggest loss. That we did recover from, with grants and help from the city and other things. And we now have a new office space.

The park itself had a lot of salt damage because of flooding so we reached out to other areas that had had this kind of flooding damage and basically asked them how they dealt with it. Our horticultural staff is very knowledgeable. We basically flushed out the soil with a lot of water to try to get that salt to recede and we cut back a lot of our perennial plants not here in the farm, but in the garden, to get rid of the salt damaged material. And a lot of the plants have come back, so that was really successful. Some did not, and so we’re not replanting those anymore, we’re planting something that’s similar but will hopefully survive the salt. And here in the farm, same thing, but because our plants were annual there were no cutbacks. We did lose a bunch of our winter crops. And now it’s just a question of we tested the soil and after the winter rains everything was pretty much back to where it should be.

JI: Are there any precautions you’re taking for a similar occurrence?

K:  We could try to raise the farm, we could try to build walls, but ultimately natural disasters and storms are what they are. What we really need to do is be changing the kinds of daily habits that we as a society have that are causing the increase in and the severity of these kinds of storms. That’s not something that’s going to help us tomorrow or next year, or two years from now, but that’s the kind of thing we need to do long term to help fix these kinds of problems.

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