Samuel S. T. Pressman had wanted to build a food garden on the rooftop of his Clinton Hill apartment for years. The artist and sculptor had lived on a farm when he was younger and had studied Sustainable Environmental Systems at Pratt. But in a city with a “time is money” mentality, he never found the right moment to start his passion project.
That changed when New York underwent a statewide Pause order in mid-March. Now, Samuel’s Food Gardens is tackling the city’s food insecurity problem by providing fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs to community gardens that advocate for food security. “I wanted to explore what most people’s living situation is here,” Pressman said, “where they don’t have any land and have hardly any outdoor space that they own, and how they can still be able to grow some food using a system that is designed to actually make it possible to grow more food than you think per square foot.”
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns over the food supply chain began increasing nationwide as popular food items flew off the shelves and grocery store lines grew to alarming lengths. This panic, along with a sudden abundance of time and collective distress over going to crowded supermarkets, contributed to a surge in backyard gardens and private farming initiatives. Even as the apocalyptic anxiety began to settle down, the gardening craze didn’t seem to stop. With at least 10 million more people unemployed in the United States compared to pre-Covid figures, feeding families continues to be at the top of everyone’s priority list.
Despite its tiny living spaces and skyscrapers galore, NYC is no exception to the gardening trend. Residents like Pressman have begun to utilize spaces on rooftops, patios, and even the edges of classic Brooklyn-style buildings to create more green space in the area.
Having previously worked with Friends of Brook Park Community Garden in the Bronx and having designed and led construction for Newkirk Community Garden in central Brooklyn, Pressman has always found ways to support underserved communities and advocate for inclusive community food growing. He began Samuel’s Food Gardens not to sell the food that he grows, but to continue his work with community gardens and help individuals with private gardening areas maximize their spaces and get the most out of their crops in the long term.
New Yorkers are engaging with food in new ways. That has led to a spike in produce sales at the three green roofs operated by Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm, and an increased demand for their services designing, installing and maintaining private green spaces. “I think that there’s, to some degree, a process of reconnecting with simple pleasures and when it comes to the kitchen, that means really high-quality, fresh ingredients that are good for you,” said Anastasia Cole Plakias, the urban farm’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “I think that there’s this realization that supply chains have a role to play in our recovery here.”
In its ten years of operation, Brooklyn Grange has sold over 400,000 pounds of produce through weekly farmers markets located in Sunset Park, Greenpoint, and Long Island City, a CSA program where people obtain the farm’s harvest through a seasonal subscription plan, and a seed-to-plate initiative that provides food to local restaurants and retailers.
Cole Plakias says Brooklyn Grange was set to sell roughly 100,000 pounds of produce this year, but once restaurants began closing across the city and in-person events came to a halt, the farm’s business model had to quickly shift away from restaurant crops and towards feeding and nourishing the community.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest from people in having us convert their outdoor spaces to food-producing spaces, or more habitable green spaces,” said Cole Plakias. “We’re seeing a tremendous amount of interest in garden maintenance services because people are recognizing the value of urban green space.”
The company has managed to secure multiple partnerships that not only keep their farms in business, but also keep restaurants open and ensure food accessibility. Tasmanian footwear company Blundstone funded a full season of produce donations and kept farmers and staff employed. To deliver emergency food relief, Brooklyn Grange partnered with Rethink (their Brooklyn Navy Yard neighbors) and Food Issues Group, both organizations dedicated to providing equitable food systems in NYC and keeping restaurant workers employed, especially during a global pandemic.
With more New Yorkers cooking at home, the demand for fresh produce at farmers markets and through CSA programs has steadily increased during the pandemic, Cole Plakias says. Add to which, there has been a dramatic boost in demand for the farm’s virtual farming and composting workshops.
There have been a variety of online learning opportunities for prospective gardeners in the city. GrowNYC, which has been teaching city folks how to maintain urban gardens for years, offers virtual classes, and the New York Botanical Garden began hosting virtual workshops after it closed in March (the garden is set to reopen on July 28).
The Union Street Farm, near the corner of Union Street and Rochester Avenue in Crown Heights, also offers free, in-person gardening classes and open volunteering, giving local residents hands-on experience with growing and maintaining a full-functioning garden. “We’ll do some tasks that need to be done in the garden and through that work, we talk about gardening,” said Garrison Harward, who began his work at the Union Street Farm in 2016. “It’s open for whatever anybody wants to learn.”
Harward’s love for gardening was influenced by his own family’s garden in his California hometown. In 2010, as a sustainable agriculture volunteer for the Peace Corps in Senegal, he began investigating regenerative agriculture and different methods of agricultural systems for economic gain and food security. The freelance lighting technician has maintained the Union Street Farm for the past five years, after it was given to him by two fellow neighbors who were too elderly to maintain it.
Harward favors no-till gardening, meaning he doesn’t turn over the soil or disrupt the structure built by bacteria and fungi. Aside from being healthier for plants, it leads to really great water infiltration, according to Harward. “Every drop of water that falls on the plant bed stays exactly where it is – I have zero runoff that goes into New York watersheds, which is environmentally friendly. Not putting nitrates into the watershed, all those ways in which agriculture contributes to algae blooms and fish die-offs.”
Harward believes there has been a marked increase in gardening since the pandemic, which leads to more people reaching out to him for advice and resources. Initially providing seedlings to neighbors that were interested in growing their own food, he soon began giving them away to people all over the country. So far, he’s sent out eight varieties of seeds to roughly 120 people who reached out to him on Instagram. He even launched a Facebook group titled “NYC Gardening Resources,” where he virtually assists new and experienced gardeners alike.
The Union Street Farm’s harvest is free for anyone that visits or casually stumbles upon its gates. Although Harward holds free farmers markets every Sunday for people to take home the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that he grows, he welcomes people to take as much as they need, whenever they need it.
“I think there’s a lot of realization that we don’t have to tie everything to a financial transaction,” Harward explained. “There’s so many different ways that we can support each other. Like, we’re exchanging goods, we’re exchanging culture, we’re exchanging connections within our neighborhood and if it doesn’t have to be monetized, then why should it?”
This ethos is not uncommon in New York City green spaces, where avid gardeners like Harward and Pressman hope to make their hard work and agricultural talents accessible to all. Pressman and his Circular Communities team are currently developing projects such as the Micro Food Hub, which promotes social equity in the agricultural sphere and facilitates the production and exchange of food by connecting community gardens, food producers, restaurants, and consumers via a digital platform, and he hopes to host school tours at his food garden where he can spark a passion for food growing within students and young people. Pressman also intends to ship out DIY planting kits in the future and provide teaching tools that instruct the basics of utilizing small spaces – including greenhouses during the winter – to maximize food growth efficiently and cost-effectively.
“There’s this special relationship you have to have with the plants to be able to help them and train them,” said Pressman. “It kind of opens up a whole new door for how humans actually emotionally feel around nature and I think people are seeking that out right now, they just might not know exactly how to get it into their home.”