In 2011, Tony Hillery was volunteering in the cafeteria at P.S. 175 in Harlem, NY. His successful limousine business had been forced to close following the ‘08 recession, and working with school kids had become a source of joy, purpose, and perspective. “While I was volunteering, I realized through the “social determinants of health” that these beautiful children were expected to live an unhealthy and shorter life than my children because of where they live,” Tony says. “In this case, a mere 20 minutes away from my family.” He wanted to find ways to support the Harlem community beyond his volunteer hours but wasn’t sure where to start.
One day he noticed a neglected lot across the street from the school. The kids called it the “haunted garden,” and it was, in fact, a community garden that had fallen into disrepair. Overgrown weeds and trash made the space unwelcoming and underutilized. Tony had the idea to clean it up as an act of service to the street. He contacted the parks department and got a permit to begin clearing out trash and debris. The kids started to notice his work and began coming over after school to help clean up. After about six weeks, the lot was cleared, and Tony and the kids were left with a blank slate. Tony didn’t have any clear ideas about what to do with the lot beyond cleaning it up, but one day a little girl in kindergarten named Nevaeh asked, “Mr. Tony, why don't we plant something?”
That was more than twelve years ago, and today, the lot is known as 134th Street Farm, just one of fourteen thriving urban farms managed by the organization Tony founded in the years that followed - Harlem Grown. What started as an act of beautification and goodwill has blossomed into a network of greenspaces, community programming, youth development programs, local farmstands, libraries, and more. Harlem Grown’s website reads, “We grow more than fruits and vegetables. We grow healthy children and sustainable communities.” The impact that Tony witnessed growing those first seeds with kids inspired each step along the way to what Harlem Grown has become today - a movement to provide good food, resources, and opportunities for the people of Harlem.
“We offer a wide range of programs, starting with our farm-based educational tours,” says Tony. “We invite any and all Title I schools to come for free tours led by our farm educators that show farm-based growing, composting, chicken care, and hydroponics right in the middle of Harlem, NY.” Harlem Grown also hosts free yoga and cooking classes for adults and families and a variety of children’s programming, like storytimes, music and movement, and supervised farm tasks. Community festivals take place on the properties throughout the year, and each summer Harlem Grown hosts a free seven-week farm-based summer camp that provides activities and outings for fifty kids that live above 96th Street in Manhattan or the Bronx and employment opportunities for teens and young adults who join in as counselors or counselors-in-training. In 2022, Harlem Grown launched free libraries at several of its locations with more on the way. The libraries are stocked with culturally relevant children’s books for ages 5-14. Kids are invited to read the books at the farm, take a book home and keep it, or return it later on, thanks to a donation of thousands of titles from Penguin Random House.
The farms also do what farms intrinsically do, which is produce food and lots of it! Produce and mushrooms are grown using different methods at all locations thanks to the hard work of the community and Harlem Grown’s excellent team of educators, organizers, and growers. “All of the produce, which is around three tons a year, is given back into the community free of charge, complete with nutrition education, cooking, and recipe writing,” says Tony. “It's very easy to introduce new foods to the community when they take part in the entire process from seed to stomach.” Harlem Grown operates farm stands outside two locations that offer free and fresh produce every week, spring through fall. The Harlem Grown Mobile Teaching Kitchen facilitates free cooking classes with farm-grown produce via a colorful food truck that’s able to take the organization’s mission and free produce outside of the Harlem neighborhood and into surrounding areas. Harlem Grown’s thirteenth farm site is a freight farm - a shipping container with sliding vertical grow space that hydroponics and UV light to grow up to an acre of produce a year within forty feet.
Tony wants the work of Harlem Grown to be a beacon of inspiration for organizers all over. “The response has been overwhelming! However, we can multiply our yields ten-fold and still not make a dent in the need for farm-fresh vegetables and eggs in this community,” says Tony. “And to be clear, we work in Harlem, but this need is in every city in the country. This is exactly why KidsGardening is such a valuable resource for communities like mine. If schools are underfunded in the basics, where and how would millions of children get the resources to get them out of the classrooms and into the gardens where we all know so much is learned not only about food, but science, math, patience, collaboration and the many other things we all learn in nature.”
Harlem Grown’s latest venture is a new independent afterschool program that launches in September of this year. The program will provide free afterschool care and programming for kids in the Harlem area five days a week, year-round. The program aims to offer a robust curriculum centered around nutrition, urban farming, sustainability, and wellness, along with daily homework help, and movement time.
Tony recently gave an interview on the podcast I Am America with Tracy Ellis Ross and shared these thoughts, “Hearing the word farming or gardening, people always go with the plants. We plant fruits and vegetables. But we grow healthy children and sustainable communities. That’s a big difference. We don’t focus on the vegetation, we focus on the people. When you grow people, that's a 365-day-a-year crop and multiple years after. It’s not seasonal like vegetation. And it's the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done after having my own children. It’s amazing, and it’s still evolving.”