Urban Farms Nurture Youth

A program called Harlem Grown helps kids thrive—and expands their connection to nature.

  • Emma Johnson
  • Making a Difference
  • Oct 01, 2019

Harlem Grown founder Tony Hillery talks to volunteers at an urban farm on 134th Street (below), and kids celebrate the site’s harvest (above). “We plant fruits and vegetables,” Hillery says, “but we also grow healthy children and sustainable communities.”

IF YOU WALK down 127th Street in Harlem, New York, you may be surprised to see a large, translucent shipping container turned into a greenhouse on a once-vacant lot.

This innovative space, called the Impact Farm, is the newest of 11 community farms and educational sites run by Harlem Grown, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing knowledge about and access to healthy food for Harlem residents and engaging kids in the fun of urban farming.

Founded in 2011 by New York native Tony Hillery, Harlem Grown has had an outsized impact on the community. In 2018 alone, 4,257 children visited its sites to help plant vegetables and learn about how they grow. Volunteers and employees harvested 6,381 pounds of produce last year, all freely given out at a farm stand they run every Saturday.

Harlem Grown founder Tony Hillery talks to volunteers at urban farm on 134th street, New York City.

Aside from providing healthy produce, the farms serve as safe spaces where residents can spend time in nature and see insects and other local wildlife. “Before they visit, a lot of kids are afraid of touching anything,” says Outreach and Communications Coordinator Gabriella Rodriguez. “But within 30 minutes, they go from being afraid of bugs to holding one and being super excited.”

Harlem Grown’s community-driven mission extends to local wildlife. Program staff install native plants at some of their farms, helping bees, butterflies and other pollinators flourish among the crops. Farmers, educators and guides at Harlem Grown sites also teach school groups and other visitors about urban wildlife and the value of pollinators to ecosystems. One site even demonstrates beekeeping and offers tastes of its colony’s honey.

Visitors take these teachings to heart. “I would say with 100 percent certainty that we have improved feelings toward nature and gardening through both our school partnerships and community green spaces,” says Rodriguez.

While Harlem Grown serves the whole community, the organization has always focused on youth, hoping to reshape how kids see the outdoors and the world around them. “We really normalize that it is a good thing to connect to the Earth, connect to our food and to get dirty,” says Farm-based Education Manager Nicole Miller. “We encourage kids to be confident leaders—and also to teach others.”

Emma Johnson is National Wildlife magazine’s editorial intern.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Urban Gardens: Bloom or Bust »
Eco-Schools USA: Sustainable Food Pathway »
Garden For Wildlife: Community Wildlife Habitats »

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates