South Bronx Food Expo sows seeds for future

By Stephanie Litsas

More than 150 people filled The Point on a cold and rainy Saturday to talk about food. They ate, they saw, they networked.

Some dreamed of farming in the neighborhood’s parks and vacant lots; some imagined buying fresh fruits and vegetables directly from the upstate farmers who grow them. Some were concerned about nutrition, others about the environment.

If those who attended the South Bronx Food & Film Expo on December 5 have their way, over the next few years in Hunts Point:
• community gardens that will spring up in parks and vacant lots;
• farmers from the Hudson Valley and Long Island will supply super-fresh fruit and vegetables;
• students will eat healthier school lunches;
• people will know where their food came from and what’s in it.

Despite the frigid conditions outside, the atmosphere inside the Garrison Avenue community center was warm and friendly, as people made business and personal connections with others who shared their passion for empowering Bronx residents with a healthy environment and a healthy lifestyle.

“This place is the bomb!” exclaimed Pia Castillo. “It’s awesome to see people emancipating themselves and taking care of their community.”

“There are so many people here on a cold rainy day to talk about healthy food and the environment,” exulted environmental justice advocate Majora Carter. “It’s really just the beginning.”

Adam Liebowitz, who spearheaded the event, was pleased to see the dozen or so organizations that showed off their work at tables. Members mingled and brainstormed ways to collaborate

The diversity of people of all races, ages, and social groups was “fascinating” to George Axiotakis, a local resident. “It’s good to see all these proactive people in the South Bronx,” he said. “They can make the community stronger, create jobs, make life better for residents, without gentrifying it.”

Linda Brown of the Adolescent Skills Center GED program said that her school is moving to Hunts Point soon, and she is excited to get her students involved with the organizations represented at the expo. “Mental health diagnoses and bad food is a bad combination,” she said. “Getting their hands dirty would help them out too.”

Some groups’ tables appealed to individuals rather than organizations. Learn It, Grow It, Eat It, sponsored by the Council on the Environment of New York City, is responsible for the youth market in Hunts Point, which gets all of its produce from the Hunts Point Farmers’ Market and the new Wholesale Greenmarket at the Fulton Fish Market. Representatives handed out healthy recipes for serving watermelon or Greek cucumber salad, and tips about the nutritional benefits of foods such as potatoes and garlic.

The table also displayed handouts for young people on how to calculate the amount of sugar in a soft drink, or to emphasize the many unnatural chemical ingredients in popular snacks, such as Twinkies and packaged Cherry Fruit Pie.

Two documentary movies were screened at the expo: “What’s on Your Plate,” by Catherine Gund, which shadowed two 11-year old girls as they tried to track down information about the food they eat, and Ana Sofia Joanes’ Fresh, which explored agriculture and its industrialization in America.

Volunteers served "delicious" vegan lunch, sponsored by Urban Farming, to attendees
Volunteers served "delicious" vegan lunch, sponsored by Urban Farming, to attendees

When lunch was announced, sponsored by Urban Farming, a line immediately stretched across the whole room. The Point’s own Bascom Catering made the free vegan lunch of jasmine rice, “chicken” in curried and brown stew vegan versions, and apple cabbage salad, along with collard greens grown by ASPIRA volunteers in Mott Haven’s Brook Park.

A slideshow projected at the ASPIRA table displayed the group’s success in transforming an asphalt lot in Brook Park into a vegetable garden. The young people talked about how working in the garden relieved stress and how seeing the results of their labor helped them stay motivated in school.

“It’s better to spend time in the garden than hanging out on the corners,” said one young man, Ahamed Shohan. “We’re learning how to grow food and be healthy.”

Sixteen-year-old Samantha Serrano, a member of The Point’s teen activist group A.C.T.I.O.N., also believes that community gardens are important “to give back and learn hands-on. When people can see the food they grow, they know why we push them to eat healthy,” she said.

A.C.T.I.O.N. promoted EarthBoxes, a type of container garden that uses black or white plastic to trap heat and keep soil moist. Over the last year, The Point’s own EarthBoxes have produced peppers, corn, lettuce and chives.

For Liebowitz, A.C.T.I.O.N.’s program director who worked to get The Point’s urban agriculture program off the ground last summer, the expo was a natural next step. “The movement is already in the Bronx,” he said. “We have the venue, and we have all these organizations that have done this work, and done it well, for a long time.”

Summed up Steve Ritz of Urban Farming, who hopes to initiate a high school in partnership with The Point devoted to urban farming and green jobs, “This is how change starts. We have enough untapped human potential and resources out here to change the world.”

A version of this story appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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