THE BRONX — Harry Mcneary III moved around between various foster and group homes as a child. As a teen he found community in the streets and was eventually imprisoned. Now, as a young adult, he has decided to devote his life to helping Bronx youngsters avoid the same streets that nearly swallowed him up.
In 2012 Mcneary, 28, started The Urban Community Food Project (UCFP), a gardening group of community-oriented youth in Claremont Village that has been planting gardens in the neighborhood’s empty lots.
This spring, the fast growing project is poised to become a leader in food education and community farming in the borough, securing its second space for the next four years, where it plans to plant food that will be distributed to local food pantries and school programs.
It will also install solar panels in its greenhouses in the space and develop aquaponic growing programs that could be installed in schools and nearby homes.
According to the Health Department's latest surveys, The Bronx has the city’s highest obesity rate and the highest rates of hunger in the entire country. These studies paint a picture of a community struggling not only with food itself but with healthy eating options.
“It’s a community and, at its basic level, it’s about food," said Mcneary. "So a big part of the work ahead is brining food back into the community.”
UCFP saw both its crops and the organization itself grow in 2013. In March of that year, the group opened its first 2,740 sq. ft garden in the empty back yard of the Tried Stone Baptist Church, at 1591 Boston Rd. in Claremont. Mcneary also started workshops for students at the Fanny Lou Hamer High School and the East Bronx Academy.
By June, with grants coming in from the Citizens Committee for NYC and Buddhist Global Relief, the group completed construction on its first greenhouses and harvested it’s first crops of pea shoots. UCFP also expanded its educational programs to include workshops with the Fortune Society.
Then in September, the group hired its first high school intern and secured a second 4,500 sq ft garden site. Almost immediately they began converting the empty lot. Later that year, UCFP had hired 7 youth interns and had constructed greenhouses, compost boxes and grow beds at their second site.
“It's all about life and agriculture and growing,” said Marilyn Johnson, a teacher at East Bronx Academy who has lived in the Bronx for more than 30 years and now works with UCFP to teach students in her school. “We are giving you skills that are going to feed your family, not only for a little while, but for a lifetime.
UCFP’s now has seven paid interns between the ages of 15 and 24, all from local schools, and is looking to expand that number this spring. The youth not only learn the hands on gardening work that is needed to grow and harvest the food, they also help with healthy eating education and donation programs.
“We are working to build a regional food network. One that doesn't work as a green capital model but one that works as a community service,” said Mcneary. “[Last year] isn't the final step, there is a lot of work to do. This is all a steppingstone to bigger projects.“
UCFP is poised to grow even more in 2014. The organization secured its second site for the next four years at Hoe Avenue and Home Street, through the City’s Task Force on Obesity, and its interns plan to plant the site’s newly completed beds in the spring with pea sprouts, 400-500 pounds of potatoes, and other crops which will be donated to local food pantries and school food programs.
Through a partnership with the Hart Seed Company, which donates GMO-free seeds, and has already planted 600 cloves of garlic. Greenhouses in this lot will also be fitted with solar panels to make the farm self-sustaining. The group’s members are developing Aquaponics systems, small water-based gardens, to possibly be installed in schools and nearby homes.
And UCFP is hosting open farm days at their Hoe Ave locations on Saturdays and Sundays throughout April and will be installing fitness equipment in May with a grant from the American Heart Association.
Still UCFP sees a lot of space to expand. There are 763 vacant lots in the Bronx, according to a 2010 Department of City Planning report.
In five years UCFP aims to expand into at least 15 of these, training people across the city and possibly nationwide to grow thousands of pounds of healthy food.
"We work every day," said Mcneary. "This isn't the final step, this is all a stepping stone and you will see more coming soon."