Urban gardeners at East New York Farms, in Brooklyn, are bringing the West Indies to neighborhood tables.
East New York, one of the city’s poorest and most dangerous areas, is more often associated with the phrase food desert, which applies to areas where fresh produce is hard to come by. But the farm, launched in 1998, has turned half a block of Schenck Ave. into a green oasis where about 14,000 pounds of produce are grown each year, including many hard-to-find specialty vegetables used in West Indian, African and South Asian cooking.
“A lot of the gardeners are from the West Indies, and they’ll order the seeds online […] and share them with the other gardeners,” says Janelle Nicol, East New York Farms’ market manager.
The crops at East New York Farms are tended by groups from the United Community Centers Youth Farm, a program that trains young people in sustainable farming techniques, and the Hands and Heart Garden, which is run by neighborhood residents.
Together, they grow herbs and vegetables ranging from well-known American favorites, like basil, collard greens and tomatoes, to the callaloo, Scotch bonnet peppers and bitter melon beloved by the area’s West Indian community. The produce is sold at a bustling farmers’ market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“The farm grows 20 or 30 types of peppers. The farmers love them; the community loves them,” Nicol says.
On a recent Saturday, one gardener, Marlene Wilks, had a big basket of bitter melons at her market stall. Some were light green and warty; others were darker, deeply ridged and spikier.
“One is Indian, one is a sub-Saharan [variety],” she said. “Different people cook it different ways. You can slice it open, take out the seeds and cook it with vegetables. It’s bitter, though,” she warns.
The warty type of bitter melon is typically sold in Asian and Indian markets, but the spikier variety is harder to find in New York City. All are used in stir-fries and curries.
Although some of the farm’s produce is native to warmer climates, it grows surprisingly well in these comparatively northern parts. One secret of the farm’s success: Crops are rotated at the end of each growing season to keep the soil fertile.
“Callaloo does well here,” Nicol says. “We keep it seasonal. [Mid-September] is the end of the callaloo season, and then we’ll plant something new.”
Wilks was also selling big bags of callaloo, chopped and ready to cook with rice, and fist-size bundles of lemongrass.
“[Lemongrass] isn’t hard to grow [in New York],” she noted.
At Pauline Reid’s stall, dried karela bitters were available for $2 per bag. The bitters look like dried grass but are actually made from the vines of bitter melons. Known for their healing properties, they are steeped in boiling water and then sipped, like herbal tea.
“If you use condensed milk, it gives a nice flavor,” she said. “But if you have diabetes you drink it plain.”
Reid claims that karela bitters can be used to treat almost any minor ailment. At East New York Farms, they’re also part of the farm’s effort to promote local, sustainable agriculture and community-led economic development.
In the process, the farm is turning one New York City food desert into a smorgasbord of fresh specialty vegetables.