NYC Public School Students Found a Way to Grow Their Own Food

by Eda Haksal 

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Battery Urban Farm is a one-acre farm space that is part of the Battery Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with the Parks Department to maintain Battery Park in downtown Manhattan.

A couple high school kids from neighboring Millennium High School approached Battery Conservancy to ask if they could raise some vegetables in the farm in November 2010. Battery Urban Farm was then formed officially as an educational farm in 2011.

School-age children and young adults in about 50 public schools visit the farm regularly to learn how to farm, grow food, and learn about the concepts of sustainability in farming. NYU talked to Lauren Kaplan, the project coordinator for the Farm and voluntary coordinator for the Conservancy.

How did you get involved with the organization?

I got involved because I have been working in the publishing for a number of years. But, I grew up in a very rural area, Eastern Long Island, where there are a lot of little farms, vineries, and vineyards. I was always very interested in environment, plants and food. I basically read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and it changed my life and I decided I wanted to do something I felt more passionately about.

Are you a vegan?

I am not. I do not think that you have to be vegan or vegetarian to support this movement. In fact, many people are going to eat meat and never going to give it up. I think that it is just as important to learn to value vegetables and eat less meat and more vegetables but also think about where your meat is coming from. Here, we focus on how food is grown, where you get your food, and how that is important to your diet, to the environment and to a lot of the natural cycles that we all rely on. This aim is also true for meat, we just happen to not be able to have cattle in our farm here.

What programs do you have?  

The Park’s Farm Educator led class for public schools K through 3 is during spring and fall on a weekly basis. They meet 10-12 times in the fall and 8 times in the spring and teach farming curriculum. Teacher led programs provide community garden for schools. Teacher shows up with her class and rents a space from the farm. Eight public schools regularly reserve space from the farm. It is on a first come, first serve basis. There are also volunteer days, field trips (where we request $50 donations) and community festivals on the weekends.

Do you donate the produce to the same public schools that come and plan them in the farm?

They are. I don’t know if they have to be, but so far, they have been. We probably would like to keep it that way because that way, the food has more impact. We are working with the Grow to Learn NYC: The Citywide School Gardens Initiative. It is a collaboration of NYC, NYC School Food and NYC Parks Department. Our food goes to schools’ cafeterias. We are a registered school garden, and because of that, we can give our food to the schools that are registered with Garden to School Café program that is part of Grow to Learn NYC program. There are no costs involved.

What are the some of the most popular produce and how do you choose them?

We try to grow a wide variety for learning purposes, but we definitely have some staples that we will grow a lot of. Kids love carrots- fun and familiar to harvest.   Tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. Kids go crazy about the little, white salad turnips. They are sweet, delicious and beautiful. It is a nice thing for kids to take, wash and eat. We do a lot of other things like broccoli, kale, lettuce, salad greens, and sugar snap peas. We do some crazy stuff like okra too.

 

What kinds of challenges do you face by being at the Park?

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Squirrels are a big problem. I used to think that squirrels were really cute. But, they burry nuts everywhere, and they especially love to do it on the beds that we just lay flat, clear and just ready for planting. Squirrels will come and dig in holes. They disrupt the planting all the time. They put peanuts in the planting. We are no trying to grow peanuts at the time, and even if we are, we do not need squirrels’ help! They will also dig holes in the irrigation tape, and so, you will have these bursts of water. If you leave your bag out with your lunch in it, they will go and get it. I left a muffin once, and it was no longer to be mine because when I came back there was a squirrel sitting on my bag with my muffin. Sometimes, dogs come in off leash even though they aren’t supposed to. Those are some challenges to the space itself. We are very public and accessible, which we want to be. But, it also means we come across some challenges because we are so public.

What was the biggest loss after Sandy?

Office at 1 NY Plaza flooded floor to ceiling. The park itself had a lot of salt damage. We reached out to other places that had had this problem. We flushed out the soil with a lot of water and cut back our perennial plants. A lot of our plants came back. Some did not, and we are not replanting those. We lost a bunch of our winter crops.

What can you do to prevent such disasters in the future?

What we need to do as a society is to change our daily habits. Whatever money is being spent to protect the park from a natural disaster.

Have you encountered any criminal activity in the park?

The only kind we see is vegetable theft. Only recently, we put up signs that said, “Don’t pick up the food.” Part of us feels that we are here to serve the community anyway. So, as much as we do not want people coming in and picking up the tomatoes that we were planning on donating to a school, you are in a public park, so you are going to have a certain degree of that. But, otherwise, there has not been much.

During your peak seasons, how much manpower does it take to run the farm?

We have had two full-time, the project manager and myself, and two part-time staff, the farmer and the educator, who now may also become full-time. Then, we have a number of volunteers. There are also 25-30 people working in the Conservancy.  We have support staff that do promotion, etc. We will be teaching over 2,000 students this year alone. It is a lot of work, but we love it. We work collaboratively with the teachers.

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