How a Former Wall Street Worker Invested in Fresh Food for Her Community

Yonnette Fleming built a farmers' market in Bed-Stuy, and so much more.

Just before this past Earth Day, dozens of volunteers worked with longtime members of the Hattie Carthan Community Garden in central Brooklyn to clean beds, spread mulch, and pour concrete. The garden has been a fixture in the area for decades, but just six years ago, the abandoned half-acre lot next to it was overgrown with trees and filled with trash. Today that lot is home to a children’s garden, two chicken coops, and the Hattie Carthan Community Market in the summer. There’s also educational programming for all ages and the Hattie Carthan Urban Agriculture Corps, a paid summer apprentice program for local teenagers.

The volunteers came together that day at the request of urban farmer and social justice advocate Yonnette Fleming, the force behind the transformation of the once vacant lot. Originally from Guyana, Fleming has worked since 2003 to address food insecurity in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant (or “Bed-Stuy”) neighborhood. While working on Wall Street years ago, she joined the community garden. As she became more deeply connected to the earth, she found it harder to juggle the two worlds. In 2008, she left her job to invest herself fully in the community.YF hands

The following year, Fleming had a vision for a permanent market in the adjoining lot. She mobilized neighbors to clear debris, worked out the title to the land with city government, and began building infrastructure. By 2014, market sales were robust, with profits going to rural farmers as well as urban gardeners selling on consignment. A few blocks away, a second farm she started hosts another farmers’ market and a thriving community supported agriculture program.

And Fleming is far from finished: She plans to build a market information center this summer and dreams of a community supported herbal medicine program. She keeps the community and visitors engaged in conversations about racial justice and the food system and continually raises funds to keep the work going in a sustainable way. We asked Fleming about her work as she readied the market garden for spring.

What are you working on?

My two most active projects are the scale-up of the Hattie Carthan Community Market and the preservation of the Hattie Carthan Herban Farm. The market came into being six years ago, through the organization of gardeners and volunteers. We realized early on that most of the results of our work would be going to the rural farmers [at the market] because we were just not able to produce enough food [in the community garden] to build equity. Through Green Thumb, we were able to [acquire] another property at 49 Van Buren Street.

When we dug that farm in 2012, it was a petroleum waste lot. We put in sweat equity and created an herbal farm. We have 170 varieties of medicinal herbs. With assistance of funders who understood our drive for self-sufficiency, we created an apothecary; we convert the herbs into local medicines that [neighbors] can access for their health and well-being. We see the farm as a health justice project–as a place to begin conversations about the disenfranchisement of healers and herbal wise women like myself, and the economics of the pharmaceutical industry.

Why are your projects important?

The processes that we engage in all have a triple bottom line. At this juncture–where our planet is under threat, our foods are nutrient-deficit, our children have forgotten the land, obesity has become the number one conversation–all of our work as farmers, gardeners, earth stewards, and medicine people becomes even more relevant and important. These processes don’t only exist for economic reasons, but for sustainability, to perpetuate our cultures, to nourish people, to reconnect our children to the earth.

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How did you get involved in this work?

The earth. All of the work is earth stewardship. There is no other motivation. All I want to see is this: a healthy community, an economy that includes all of us, for women to be returned to our places as keepers of the earth.

What are you most excited about?

I am most excited that I have been a part—along with so many others—of laying the groundwork and the seeds for a new kind of world: for cooperative economics and for people living in harmony. I am excited about seeing that world blossom. I am excited about seeing what happens with our children and how they will carry on this work. I am excited that justice might have a chance.

What would you most like to see change?

I’d like to see community equity. Not a conversation about equity, but a real shifting of dynamics and redistribution of resources. I would like to see policies that benefit people working hard to build their communities–not contribute to the wealth gap. And I would like to see government work for and with the people–not dictating their agenda, but understanding what has caused us to be in this situation and how to move out of it.

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What can people do to support your work?

Show up! Shop at the markets, come out and volunteer, support our teenagers–they are very brave to come out every week to farm, making a statement about who they are. Our community market needs humans to function: to serve, set up, break down, and turn compost. To learn more about our ongoing work, farm celebrations, and important upcoming farm preservation campaigns, follow our website and Facebook.

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Siena Chrisman is a Brooklyn-based writer and researcher addressing agriculture policy and social justice. Her work has appeared in Modern Farmer, Edible Brooklyn, Grist, and others, and she is currently working on a book about the 1980s farm crisis. Read more at www.sienachrisman.com. Read more >

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