We’re excited to introduce you to our speakers for the 2016 Change Food Fest through a series of personal Q&A’s. Today we are talking with Tony Hillery, Founder and Executive Director at Harlem Grown.
Tony Hillery is the Founder and Executive Director of Harlem Grown, a non-profit that aims to inspire youth to live healthy and ambitious lives through mentorship and hands-on education in urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition. Since 2011, Harlem Grown has served over 2,500 elementary school students per year while growing and providing over 2,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to children and families in Harlem in 2015.
What’s one thing anyone can do to help the good food movement?
It is important to remember that the change can happen at the community level. Get involved simply by asking for more local, organic food to drive demand. Collectively changing our habits to gravitate toward locally, sustainably grown, nutritious foods, is an easy place to start with a bottom-up approach to change our food system. That’s part of what Harlem Grown is doing—we are trying to create that demand for nutritious foods in a neighborhood that’s historically underserved.
Tell us about the career change you made that evolved into Harlem Grown. With the gift of hindsight, is there anything you would do differently?
I would have started earlier. When I started Harlem Grown in 2011, I was shocked by the chronic need and lack of resources for the families I was working with in Central Harlem. It’s a shame that in one of the richest cities in the world, we are letting families go without the most basic of needs, like shelter and healthy, nutritious foods.
The work we do and the service we provide is deeply needed in Harlem and across the world. I would love the number of youth that we have impacted to be double or triple than what we are at now, but I understand that true change takes a long time. It also requires more people to have the same realization I had in 2011; that life isn’t about chasing money, it is about helping people—that’s real impact.
Your work focuses on children—helping them understand and participate in their own food system. What can adults learn from the kids in your program? How can we try to mimic their best qualities, enthusiasm and openness?
My Harlem Grown kids are truly remarkable. Some of my kids are homeless, most live under the poverty line, and yet they manage to wake up every day with enthusiasm and hope. In spite of all the things the lack, they are simply grateful to have a place to call their own, and that’s Harlem Grown.
They have taught me so much in the five years I have been working with them, but the lesson that stands out the most for me, is to simply be hopeful and happy. There is so much negativity being thrown around, especially in the political environment we currently find ourselves. That is why it is so important to realize that there is a lot good being done in the world right now, and all we have to do is to make it a priority to be a part of that good work.
With so many other organizations focused on youth competing for their interest, how do you convince donors and funders to support the kind of empowerment you nurture? What can the rest of the food movement do to help champion the importance of nutritional food for children and families?
Harlem Grown’s approach is unique in that we not only realize that the nutrition issues our youth face is a symptom of poverty, but we strive to address that issue. It would be disingenuous to tell a kid to eat this locally-grown kale, when some of them do not even have a place to eat it. So, we use farm spaces and urban farming as a tool to engage them, and while we do supply healthy food, we address the whole child’s needs. We do this by using mentorship to inspire them to lead healthy and ambitious lives, and exposing and connecting them to opportunities that will expand their own personal dreams and ambitions.
What else can we expect to see from Harlem Grown in the next few years? Where are your priority areas of focus?
Our goal is to perfect our model for change in Central Harlem. Currently, Harlem Grown partners with six schools in Central Harlem where we place sustainability mentors in the cafeteria to work with students every day, nudging them to eat nutritious foods and organizing them in green teams. This is where we are having some of our biggest impact. There are 39 elementary schools across in Central Harlem, and we want to be in every school.
How can we learn more about your work?
I encourage everyone to come see Harlem Grown at our 134 Street Farm (118 W 134th Street) during our open volunteer hours on Saturdays between 10am-3pm. I can talk about our programming and work all day, but seeing our space and the youth who come to our farm will really show you the impact we have every day. You can also go to www.harlemgrown.org to learn more about our work and opportunities at our farm.
The Change Food Fest “Growing the Good Food Movement” will take place in New York City on November 12th and 13th, 2016. We will explore and celebrate change happening in the food system. Rather than simply talk about problems, we will actively look at solutions that are leading us to the sustainable food system we wish to see. Our focus will be on both real and visionary change and will include an exploration into seafood, plant based vs meat diets, possible impacts of new businesses and investment money coming into the food space – and much more. You can purchase a ticket or host a viewing party of the live webcast in your local community. Follow the action at #CFFest2016!