New Yorkers from all boroughs will hike to the Bronx this month to watch tiny trains chug along on wooden trestles at the New York Botanical Garden’s “Holiday Train Show.” But unbeknownst to its many visitors, the garden’s work towards building a greener and healthier Bronx is the real reason residents consider this a gem of their community.
A program at the botanical garden called Bronx Green-Up provides horticultural training to residents and supports community gardeners and urban farmers. Its efforts helped transform the abandoned parking lot of Morris Campus, a South Bronx high school, into an oasis in a borough plagued by food deserts, an area where it can be difficult to get fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods.
“The neighbors and residents here don’t have access to fresh produce at all. There is nothing,” said Carmen Bardeguez-Brown, a retired principal of Morris Campus who, along with 300 volunteers and an on-site farm manager, helped revamped the underutilized space.
It is now teeming with herbs, budding flowers and fresh produce to be sold at low-cost throughout the community.
The Bronx ranked last in the 2017 New York County Health Rankings, a report produced by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation located in Princeton, New Jersey, making it the least healthy county in the state.
“We want to create community-run markets that will help provide people here with fresh, healthy produce,” said Ursula Chanse, the director of the Bronx Green-Up program. “The gardeners we work with see the need and disparity here. Diabetes, heart disease, food insecurity — people are facing so many different health challenges in the Bronx.”
Bardeguez-Brown said she dreamed of creating a space where students, who have little access to nature, could connect to the outdoors in a calm, organic environment and explore the benefits of urban farming.
The lot was renamed Morris Campus Farm and now features walking trails, a meditation area and a healing garden. Not only was building the farm a unique learning opportunity for students, Bardeguez-Brown said the project also created summer jobs for 30-odd students who worked as paid interns over the summer.
Reflecting on the farm’s first open season, Bardeguez-Brown said the next step is collaborating with the New York Botanical Garden over the winter months to construct a greenhouse.
“It gives me hope that people are thinking green and we can find solutions to real problems,” she said. “When you work collaboratively with people, you can create beautiful things.”