Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Tony Hillery, the founder of Harlem Grown, about his organization’s commitment to inspiring youth to live healthy, ambitious lives. In addition to providing mentorship and role models to impoverished youth, Harlem Grown provides hands-on education in urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition. When we spoke with Tony Hillery, he talked about the inception of Harlem Grown, its impact so far, and its plans for future expansion.
Food Tank (FT): The idea to start Harlem Grown came to you while volunteering in an elementary school in Harlem, New York. What inspired you to pursue this project?
Tony Hillery (TH): The financial crisis in 2010 hit me hard. During this time, I was reading about the state of schools in the inner city. I didn’t believe it was as bad as what I was reading, so I started volunteering to see for myself. I volunteered with no direction or sense of what I was getting into—I went because I wanted to show parents the importance of education in breaking the cycle of poverty. The parents, however, thought that they were doing fine without any education. I didn’t know how to respond to that without being condescending. So, after three weeks, I gravitated towards the children.
I started working in the lunchroom of an elementary school, where I noticed that the children, most of whom rely on school meals for breakfast, lunch, and supper, were not eating their vegetables. Many could not even identify vegetables. From this, the idea for Harlem Grown grew organically. We cleared out an abandoned garden across the street from the school, bought seedlings for each of the 400 students, and everyone planted something.
When a child plants something his or herself and tends to the plant, 9 times out of 10, he or she will always eat the final product and almost always like it. The problem, however, was that these children had no other access to healthy foods. Eighty percent of the kids we serve live in a single parent household; 90 percent live below poverty; almost 100 percent are on food stamps; 30 percent are homeless; and, although there are 53 fried chicken restaurants in a three-block radius, there are no affordable supermarkets.