At Just Food’s annual conference in New York City in March, Rockaway Youth Task Force (RYTF) senior field organizer Khaleel Anderson took the stage and asked the audience to join him in a call-and-response.
“Show me what community looks like!” he shouted into the microphone. “This is what community looks like!” the food movement activists in the room responded.
Anderson’s Far Rockaway community, located on the Rockaway Peninsula in the New York borough of Queens, is just blocks away from the ocean, but the looming brick towers of high-rise public housing developments obstruct the beachfront view in every direction.
In the midst of the tall buildings, bodegas, and fast food restaurants, a half-acre garden is thriving. Salad greens, tomatoes, and lemon mint spring up in cheerful orange beds tended by local teenagers and grandmothers.
The garden is the centerpiece of the Rockaway Youth Task Force’s work to empower neighborhood young people—ages 15 to 25—through civic engagement, volunteer opportunities, mentoring, and professional development. Through the garden, the young people learn that access to fresh, healthy food is their right, and is also in their own hands.
It’s Not Just About Food
“It’s not just about the food,” says founder Milan Taylor. “What we’re seeing in our community is that the root causes to a lot of issues begin with food. Rockaway has high rates of all of these health conditions because of the socioeconomic conditions of our community.”
He’s not the only one working to change that. RYTF is one of four local gardens—all within a mile and a half of each other—that recently banded together to form the first East Rockaway Growing Coalition. The goal of the group is to promote fresh food as a vehicle for social change in the community. Other members include the Beach 41st Community Garden, Edgemere Farm, established in 2013, and Seagirt Boulevard Community Garden, established in 1992.
“I wanted to reach outside to form a coalition because for the past couple of years, I’ve seen major growth in Far Rockaway of gardens and greening programs,” explains Sharon Keller, the manager of Seagirt Boulevard Community Garden, which is now run in partnership with Bette Midler’s greening initiative, New York Restoration Project.
Many of the gardens share narratives related to Superstorm Sandy, which hit in 2012, devastating the Rockaways.
During the storm, Seagirt was and flooded with four feet of salt water and completely destroyed, and members had to rebuild it from the ground up, adding raised beds since the soil was ruined. After Taylor created RYTF in 2011, the group’s first major project was coordinating the distribution of food and supplies in response to the storm.
How a Storm Changed a Culture
On a larger level, the storm brought to the surface and exacerbated issues that had been plaguing the Rockaways since New York City concentrated multiple public housing developments on the eastern end of the peninsula starting around 1950.
With limited access to transportation, the isolated area has been labeled a “food desert” by the federal government and has high rates of obesity and high blood pressure compared to the rest of Queens and NYC. (One particularly telling statistic: the rate of death from heart disease is 78 percent higher in the Rockaways than it is in Queens county overall.)
“A lot of our thinking was after Hurricane Sandy, how can we be more resilient and provide for ourselves?” explains RYTF member coordinator Jazmine Outlaw. “The garden was also a way for us to have a safe, open space for young people to come and congregate … and it kind of transformed into something a lot deeper than that.”
The RYTF garden now includes a communal public space and a central area with beds of tomatoes, eggplant, greens, and more, tended by the approximately 30 youth members of RYTF. Community members, who pay a $30 annual fee that includes the plot, soil, seeds, and all supplies, own 30 other beds. The gardeners care for their plots and then take home everything they grow to feed their families. Additionally, the youth members run GrowNYC’s only Greenmarket in the Rockaways from July through November, where, Taylor says, volunteers sell more than 20,000 pounds of locally grown produce a season to local residents.
The RYTF has also established an organic composting system and a solar power set-up that allows the garden to operate independently when it comes to energy. This summer, members installed a greenhouse and a coop that will soon house chickens.
Meanwhile, nearby at Seagirt Boulevard Community Garden, plots are divided among about 20 growing members, who harvest tomatoes, collard greens, peppers, corn, and more. On the half-acre lot of Edgemere Farm grows a wide variety of vegetables, flowers, and herbs that local restaurants use and members sell at a farm stand open on Fridays and Saturdays from May through October.
The biggest project the members of the East Rockaway Growing Coalition are currently working on together is an apprenticeship program. “We were able to hire two apprentices for a startup program to teach young people about gardening and green jobs,” explains Keller. “Also, we are working on a way to secure surplus vegetables from each other’s gardens to be distributed to the community at large through churches and community organizations.”
Taylor is on board with continuing to expand RYTF’s food justice efforts in partnership with the other groups. “Within the first two years, we figured out the garden is definitely an economic engine, and it’s a communal space,” he said. “Our plan is to really keep figuring out how it can be a vehicle for greater social change.”