Sustainable food project grows on Bronx River

Family yoga teacher Alba Mota guides participants through stretching exercises as part of a Bronx River Foodway event.

The new Bronx River Foodway at Concrete Plant Park just wrapped up its inaugural season of planting and public programming, leaving behind more than 4,000 individual plants spanning over 50 species and a third of an acre of seeded meadow stretching along the Bronx River. Pollinators, native grasses, medicinal plants, herbs and vegetables now grow in the shadow of the old concrete plant, thanks to the efforts of the city and local volunteers.

A partnership between the city Parks Department, the Bronx River Alliance, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, The Point CDC, and Partnership for Parks, this pilot project included a two-month long series of events and activities that focused on food, culture, health, arts and the history of the neighborhood, all offered by individuals and local groups. The Foodway also offered guided gardening opportunities for neighborhood residents.

The concept of the Foodway was developed by Mario Yanez, a permaculture designer and practitioner from South Florida, where he is lead designer at FoodScape Designs in Miami. The principles of permaculture are to use and/or follow the patterns or characteristics observed in the natural ecosystem. The non-profit organization he founded, Inhabit Earth, thinks of the Foodway as a “cultural concept that refers to the intersection of food, culture, traditions and history” in what they call “productive landscapes, or productive placemaking.”

Put more simply, the goal is to turn underutilized public spaces into areas that can grow food. Yanez was introduced to Liam Kavanagh, a Parks Department deputy commissioner, by a friend and approached him with the idea. That led to the pilot in Concrete Plant Park.

“Not everyone has a garden, or access to earth—especially in New York City. The Bronx River Foodway helps to address this fact of city life.” said Maggie Greenfield, the administrator for the Bronx River Alliance. The goal is to jump-start the imagination, she said, and think about different ways to use land within the city.

Concrete Plant Park made for an ideal location since it connects two neighborhoods to the river. The residential area around the park is considered a food desert, meaning it has limited access to fresh produce despite the proximity of the Hunts Point food distribution center. Organizers hope the Foodway will help the city examine how a sustainable food landscape can be integrated into a public park, and help local residents use strategies to push policy and find creative solutions that address the problem of food accessibility.

“We know that what is grown in the Foodway is not enough to feed the entire community,” said Dariella Rodriguez, director of community organizing and outreach at Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. “But we need to grow food to educate ourselves about responsible ways to plant in the way that addresses the needs of community. It’s about planning for the needs of people.”

Other activities and events during the months of foodway programming included community cooking class, family yoga, movie night, healing drum circle, green jewelry workshop, indigenous Mexica dance, Zumba dance, fishing classes, medicinal plant workshops, community acupuncture, reiki, tai-chi, paddling and a shoreline cleanup. It is also the first park in the city to have bike repair station.

Bronx resident Alba Mota, who works as a mentor at the Longwood office of Friends of the Children NY, gave three bilingual family yoga classes as part of the Foodway programming early this fall. Everyone except one participant was new to yoga.

“There is a lot of asthma, obesity, and there is no healthy food around,” she noted, adding that yoga can help kids with behavior issues, especially around controlling their emotions. “If you integrate something like yoga, it can have a positive impact at various levels.” Mota, who would like more resources to teach yoga at parks and public spaces children already go to, focused on exercises that just require the body so “they don’t buy anything, they don’t even need a yoga mat to do it.”

The programming was decided through a community visioning process led by Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice with the participation of not just other organizations, but individuals who live, work or make their living blocks away — even street vendors who work under the train station were approached to participate.

“Teenagers in the community were the driving force of the Foodway, not only in visioning but also in labor,” Rodríguez said.“If the community is not included in the planning and the creation of a project they will never see it as theirs.”

Yanez and the Parks Department were involved at the “expert level” but the community expertise was an important part of the planning in deciding what to grow, how to grow it, and how to use the edible plants, herbs, and fragrant flowers.

Caterer Elia Campos cooked healthy meals three times at the Foodway as part of the programmed events. She comes from a family of traditional herbalists who practice natural medicine and was excited to see some of the herbs planted on the Foodway: rue, rosemary, basil – even amaranth, which she said she had never seen grown in the U.S. “You can do healing balms with those,” said Campos. “All this is good! You can do teas and natural medicines.” One of the healthy meals she prepared was sugar-free oatmeal with fresh Amaranth from the Foodway.

Foraging is against NYC Parks rules as it not only threatens vegetation, but can also create health issues for people eating plants from contaminated soil. But the Foodway allows residents to forage in raised and controlled beds.

“I would feel comfortable picking and eating some of the produce grown,” said Bodoma Norales, 43, resident of Longwood and leader of the Bodoma Garífuna Culture Music Band, “The space is very similar to the places we come from. We are farmers and fishermen in our own communities back home.”

Rodriguez said there are only “near future plans” for the Foodway, but hopes it expands to other areas along the river. Next season, organizers will continue to do more sessions in schools and plan another robust season of events. Right now, the Parks Department and alliance members are planting perennial plants that will come up in the spring.

“Our food justice work is only beginning,” said Rodríguez.

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