Sunday, March 7, 2010

People's Garden NYC

As a resident of lower Manhattan, I’ve been closely following the debate over where the 9/11 terror trials will be held. Initially the trials were proposed for the federal courthouse which is very near the subway station I use to go to and from work. While it would be hugely satisfying to see Khalid Sheikh Mohammed meet his justice just blocks from Ground Zero, this part of town would again be subjected to intense security and media coverage, another very sobering daily reminder of what happened almost nine years ago (as if we need reminding).

In one of life’s little ironies, I’m also following another proposed event that would occur down the street from the courthouse at City Hall. In many ways it is the polar opposite to the trials; while September 11th was about discord, destruction, and death, the City Hall project is about new beginnings, nurturing, and bringing people together for the common good. It’s not big news like the trials, but the project has the potential to inspire the whole city towards a healthier, more sustainable future. What is it?

It’s called People’s Garden NYC. This grassroots project would be a teaching garden, planted in raised beds in front of City Hall in an area left open for security reasons and Yankee celebrations (I had to sneak that in!).

The garden would be filled with vegetables, flowers, and herbs and tended to by the city’s public school students. The kids would learn from local farmers how to grow plants organically and their harvest would be donated to a local food pantry. In addition to learning where their food comes from, the kids would get plenty of exercise, learn about healthy eating habits, and discover the many ways a garden is beneficial to the environment.

This is a proposed project, not yet approved. If enough people sign this petition, sending the message to Mayor Bloomberg that New Yorkers care about keeping their food local and improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods, it could become a reality.

Growing up in New Jersey, my family had a vegetable garden and as a result I was familiar with putting my hands in the soil, planting something, watching it grow, and eating what it produced. But that’s not the norm for most kids, especially city kids. Actually, forget about growing their own food – in certain parts of the city, kids don’t even have access to fresh fruit and produce. It's easier and cheaper for them to get a cheeseburger from McDonald's than it is an apple. While People’s Garden NYC wouldn’t change these conditions immediately, it would be a model for what could be in schoolyards, terraces, rooftops, and vacant lots throughout the city.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who launched the People’s Garden initiative, has set a goal of seeing an organic garden at every USDA building throughout the world, the first having been planted in February 2009 at its headquarters in Washington, DC. So far there are 124 People’s Gardens across the USA, not all at USDA buildings. In fact, Secretary Vilsack encourages anyone interested in starting a community garden to contact the department. While People's Garden NYC is not connected to the USDA initiative, David Bowman Simon, the person organizing the petition for People’s Garden NYC, was inspired by what the USDA has accomplished. He is also the co-founder of the influential The WhoFarm (aka The White House Organic Farm Project).

Speaking of the White House, that is the location of the most famous organic community garden of them all. Within 2 ½ months of moving in, the Obama’s broke ground on the first large scale White House vegetable garden since the Roosevelt administration. On a national level no political figure has been more visible in their support of community gardens than our First Lady. The sustainable food movement found a passionate and vocal ambassador in Michelle Obama; in addition to the White House organic garden, she supported the creation of the White House Famers’ Market and recently kicked off a campaign to fight childhood obesity called Let’s Move.

After a particularly cold and snowy winter we’re starting to thaw out just a wee bit in NYC. On my morning walks I hear the birds chirping their springtime songs and see the snowdrops peeking through the ground in the park. The warmer weather also means it's time to start gardening again. With a little bit of luck and many more signatures on this petition, New Yorkers will be able to watch a vegetable garden grow on the steps of City Hall as we go about our days. Please take a minute and lend your support to a great cause and give this part of town and all of New York City something to smile about.

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