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Project EATS: Growing Community-Based Urban Food Networks to Create Livable Futures

A community-based value chain model that fosters healthier lives and financial opportunity for residents of low-wealth communities in NYC.

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Project EATS (a.k.a. Active Citizen Project)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.projecteats.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New York City, NY

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

New York City (NYC), a city in the United States, covers an area of 784 sq km.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Linda Goode Bryant, the Founder and President of Project EATS (PE), has been a resident of NYC since 1973. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Linda grew up in communities where backyard gardens provided food for families and the PE motto: “Using what we have to create what we need” was part of everyday life. Linda has a lifetime of experience working in low-wealth communities like the ones PE works in today, and her mission is to use her vision as an artist to address obstacles, increase opportunities, and share (mostly non-monetary) resources to achieve what many perceive as improbable in these communities.

In 2009, Linda developed Project EATS, an art and urban agricultural community-based approach to transforming low-wealth communities into active, vital hubs where residents expand their personal and professional skills, obtain employment, develop careers, and pursue opportunities that increase their ability to live healthy and thrive, regardless of income. The PE model employs small-plot, community-based and operated high-yield farms that employs seeding, succession planning, carbon waste reuse, and other environmentally sound techniques to maximize yields in limited urban spaces and provide the community with ease of access to healthy, ultra-local, ‘income-appropriate’ food. Our community dinners, dialogues, and other community-building work attempts to make low-wealth communities epicenters for conversation about health challenges in communities and the ways in which art, food, culture, and creative programming can begin to address rifts and promote cohesion.

Linda and Project EATS’ work has received coverage in numerous outlets, including:

-Ursula Magazine: https://www.hauserwirth.com/publications/22996-ursula-issue-1

-The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/11/nyregion/linda-goode-bryant-project-eats.html

-New York Daily News: https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-essex-farm-opens-in-lower-east-side-20190731-eh23bcczejcrdmn6z6gm7lop3e-story.html

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

New York City is the largest city in the United States with a projected population of 8.8 million in 2020, approximately 44% of New York State’s population. It has the highest population density in the United States, which supports the existence of one of the largest transit systems in the world, diverse cultural and culinary offerings, a vibrant economy, and world-renowned institutions.

The City’s inequity in areas such as health, wealth, and education is pronounced. The top 0.1% of New Yorkers earn four times more than the bottom 50%. The city is home to nearly one million millionaires, but as of 2018, the median income was $57,782. 40% of people living in NYC struggle to provide basic necessities for their families, and 1 in 5 lives below the poverty rate (3.8 million New Yorkers will live on low incomes and below the poverty level in 2050, if this rate stays consistent). New Yorkers’ participation in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program increased 71.1% between June 2006 and June 2013. More than half of New Yorkers are rent burdened (i.e., spend more than 30% of their income on housing). A crumbling, century-old transit infrastructure and land use rules that restrict new construction in transit-accessible neighborhoods contribute to the rise in rents while limiting the accessibility of employment opportunities. As of the 2010 Census, the racial demographic breakdown of NYC was 13% Asian, 26% Hispanic, 26% Black, and 33% white, but nearly half of our neighborhoods are dominated by one racial or ethnic group.

The city is home to a diverse food landscape featuring countless cuisines from around the world and is welcoming to increasingly popular movements like ‘Slow Food,’ ‘Farm to Table,’ and ‘Localvore.’ While NYC is still highly dependent on transportation to bring food products from outside the city and the country to meet demand (and therefore vulnerable to extreme weather events, which disrupt food security when flooding limits the flow of food into the city), more and more food is being grown locally. The city is home to hundreds of urban farms and community gardens, and a broad range of agriculture projects and initiatives, many of which grow food at small scale to improve local health and food access or at large scale with an eye toward economic viability, increasing the sustainability of the local food system, and generating a profit margin. In addition, a plethora of food and farming nonprofits have sprung up in the city to support urban gardeners, provide sales outlets for city-based and nearby farms, teach communities about nutrition and healthy food preparation, and promote policies that support access to nutritious food and healthier lifestyles. Project EATS occupies a unique space in the urban agricultural landscape of New York City, working at the intersection of community-based food access/wellness and large-scale production/economic viability.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

784

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

8550971

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Decades of disinvestment, discriminatory policies, and displacement have pushed New Yorkers with few financial resources into areas that hold fewer means to and more difficult access to economic advancement. Most of the low-wealth communities in which PE works have rates of unemployment typically ranging from 10%-14% (according to 2018 statistics), as compared to the citywide average of ~4%. Unemployment in these communities could be expected to rise significantly due to the threat to hundreds of thousands of jobs from automation (nationwide unemployment due to automation is expected to reach 33.3% by 2050, with 50%-80% of food jobs lost).

The lower perceived profitability of opening grocery stores in low-wealth communities also decreases access to fresh produce and limits alternatives to cheap, nutritionally devoid calories. Additionally, by symbolizing cultural resiliency and providing avenues for people to nurture social ties and care for one another, cheaper, unhealthy foods can provide a respite from a climate of persistent deprivation. These factors contribute to high rates of chronic, diet-related illness. The diabetes rate in Brownsville, Brooklyn, for example, is 13% – significantly higher than the city’s average of 9%. The obesity rate is 41%, and hypertension is at 32%. With rates of diet-related conditions projected to steadily increase across the country between now and 2050, it seems low-wealth communities may carry the brunt of this growth, and diet-related illness rates could surge above 50% in some places.

Nation-wide, food waste contributes the equivalent of 2% of emissions and accounts for more than 1/4 of freshwater consumption and around 300 million barrels of oil per year. Currently, the NYC Department of Sanitation’s city-wide composting initiatives collect only about 1.2% of the more than 1.5 million tons of NYC’s organic waste, which produces harmful methane as it degrades. Unaddressed, the waste generated by our current food system will pose an increased threat to environment and human health in 2050.

Urban farming has been difficult to advance, due in part to building code restrictions, the economic value of land, and a lack of appreciation for its potential to improve food security and urban livability. In NYC, a 2017 initiative to develop a robust urban farming bill failed, replaced by a plan to create a database of urban agriculture projects and provide guidance to newcomers to urban farming. If policy does not effectively prioritize land for agricultural uses and address building codes, we face a 2050 in which cities produce food at a mere fraction of their potential capacity – to their detriment. As New York State loses farms outside of the city (almost 3,000 lost between 2007 and 2017), and the world faces uncertainty about the ability of our global system to meet the need for food, the imperative to develop viable, scalable urban food systems becomes ever more pressing.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

By putting both a steady, abundant supply of good foods and local, living-wage jobs within historically low-wealth communities, PE’s vision for 2050 removes barriers to economic security. In 2050, these community-based value chains would not only build local wealth through individual jobs but through incubating and maintaining infrastructure such as farms, processing facilities, green transportation operations, and more within historically low-wealth communities, making them critical players in the local economy and crucial hubs in the citywide food system. In addition, placing local food value chains in communities rebalances the economic forces that drive residents to expend their limited financial resources either buying overpriced fresh produce of questionable or inconsistent quality in their communities or traveling to get more reasonably priced, better-quality items.

Proliferating farming, farm infrastructure, and cultural programming to support conversations about public and individual health in historically low-wealth communities leverages existing culture around food, which is based in sharing resources, identity, and a history of resourcefulness in the face of struggle and scarcity. While the contents of the plate will shift toward healthful items, the mission behind gathering around food will be the same: to talk about how the community can assume agency in improving conditions for its residents. Food, food jobs, and health will become larger parts of the conversation by virtue of the local prominence of the agents of the food system. The dishes served in these communities will continue to be characterized by bold flavors and spices traditional to the cuisines of the American Southern, the Caribbean, and the global Southern diasporas, among others. However, the nutritional content will skew away from sugars, saturated fats, and salt toward fresh produce, lean proteins, grains, and legumes. Rates of diet-related illness can be expected to decrease alongside these dietary changes.

The use of greener technologies and the implementation of local waste recycling initiatives will reduce pollution as well as the rate of illnesses caused by environmental pollutants. Policies that support the widespread acquisition and adoption of those technologies and otherwise broaden opportunities for urban areas to designate land for farming and support growers will ensure that cites can increase their self-sufficiency, grow their economies, and further reduce the environment impact of transporting food.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

We envision an urban food system that situates power in the hands of residents of low-wealth communities rather than reenacting and reinforcing the patterns of disenfranchisement that have contributed to adverse economic and health outcomes.

We envision that communities throughout NYC and ultimately the country will have replicated models of viable urban farming, food-based commerce, and community health similar to PE’s. Formerly ‘low-income’ neighborhoods will boast vital local economies that attract investment and consumer dollars from inside and outside of the community. Policy, technological innovation, and funding conditions will support urban food systems to maximize outputs to ultimately produce between 1/2 and 3/4 of food in urban areas around the world by 2050. Food waste will have been all but eliminated in urban food systems through citywide composting initiatives.

These efforts will have created 30% more high-wage jobs along the value chain by 2050 and trained a highly skilled workforce of residents of low-wealth communities to assume these positions. These communities, having enjoyed enduring access to economic opportunity and nutritious food, will have come to be marked by widespread good health. Food deserts and food swamps will be eradicated; affordable and healthy fresh and prepared food retail options such as farm stands, markets, and restaurants will vastly outnumber unhealthy options. Public expenditures on healthcare for diet-related illnesses will plummet in urban areas, where the overwhelming majority of residents will consume 1-3 servings of fresh, nutritious, locally grown, and culturally relevant food each day.

Growing and sharing healthy food where one lives will be the norm and become part of the culture of these communities. Communities will feel a sense of pride in the strength of the local economy, stewardship over their infrastructure, and a sense of responsibility and care for one another.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

With the concerted efforts of our partners – youth and adult residents, community-based health and service providers, foundations, public high schools, community organizations, local non-profits, local colleges and universities, city cultural institutions, low-income and affordable housing developers and non-profit housing organizations, and city agencies, who since our inception have helped shape our vision to improve human, social, environmental, and economic health – and other stakeholders, we envision that community-based value chains comprised of local farms, processing facilities, commercial kitchens, distributors, retail outlets, and waste reuse facilities will operate in every low-wealth community in NYC by 2050. Beyond feeding residents, these value chains would produce real, lasting change for low-wealth communities, addressing their historic disenfranchisement and allowing them to build social and political capital, economic power, and hope.

Of the hundreds of urban farms we envision will form the foundation of NYC’s community-based value chains in 2050, PE would grow to operate 40 in 13 low-income communities (26 soil ground-level and rooftop farms and 14 hydroponic farms) on 28 acres of outdoor and indoor space throughout the city – while employing 200 full-time professional farmers and managers who make livable and professional wages (75% of whom are residents who live where PE operates). Using sustainable, high-yield, primarily hand-grown, small-plot farming methods, these farms would produce 75,000 lbs. per acre (25% more than typically grown on rural acres) – 6.6 million lbs. of food annually, which would feed 36,283 New Yorkers 1 serving of uber-local, highly nutritious vegetables 365 days a year. 55-60% of food would be sold within the communities that generate it; and 40-45% would be sold at premium and market rates to higher-income households and commercial markets throughout the city. The food produced would include spinach, tomatoes, onions, kale, peas, peppers, beets, beans, cucumbers, carrots, and leafy greens. Benefits programs like Health Bucks and WIC that currently subsidize fresh produce purchased in NYC, would simultaneously provide additional support to residents who do not immediately reap the economic benefits of the local value chain and further stimulate the local economy. Health education and cultural work will leverage the sociability of food culture in low-wealth communities to position healthier diets and lifestyles as meaningful and attainable, accelerating adoption. PE’s Farmacy program, for example, which partners with community-based medical providers to prescribe nutritious food to patients, uses peer-coaching among other strategies to support residents’ efforts to shift their food behavior to healthier meals. In 2050, PE envisions operating 26 Farmacies 3 times a week in all 13 communities. As the economic and social impacts of the community-based value chains proliferate, abundance, freshness, self-sufficiency, and health would become part of local cultural identity.

Between 2020 and 2050, PE envisions the formation of a city-wide food policy council to ensure coordination among stakeholders and alignment within government. Once established, the council could coordinate with state government to implement a host of tax incentives and reforms to building codes and land use policies to encourage building farms and facilities in low-wealth communities in vacant lots, existing green spaces, and rooftops. Recent funding initiatives have signaled willingness to fund models of community development and ownership that could support the creation of this infrastructure. For example, in 2015, the Mayor’s office implemented a $1.2 million Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative to support creating or converting existing businesses into worker-owned cooperatives. In 2017, the State launched Vital Brooklyn, a $1.4 billion plan to advance community wellness that has led to innovative collaborations between affordable housing real estate developers, service providers, and food growers designed to support healthier lifestyles locally.

We envision that the high-efficiency, environmentally sound technologies and practices needed to support these community-based value chains would create rather than destroy jobs, due to explosive growth of the urban farming sector and the sheer magnitude of the demand for locally grown food in 2050. State and local government will have contracted with developers of farm technology to promote rapid advancement in development and cost reduction of currently trending technologies such as IoT, LED and solar growing technology, and aeroponics, leading to widespread utilization of small, vertical spaces to maximize output while minimizing energy and water use by over 50% by 2050. Soil farms could adopt PE’s current model of planting in a medium comprised primarily of compost from city food waste streams to create closed-loop systems.

Demand for entry-level, livable wage jobs with advancement opportunities will have risen between now and 2050 alongside an urbanization-driven increase in NYC’s population. State and local policy leading up to 2050 will have prioritized training and hiring for residents of the communities in which the technologies and value chain jobs are based by providing tax incentives to businesses who hire locally – so that the communities reap financial benefit through wages in addition to possible ownership. Government and philanthropic dollars would seed training programs through grants to non-profit workforce development organizations, such as PE’s existing programs that teach and hire residents in farming, farm stand management, and product creation, to train community members in those competencies, as well as food processing and preparation, equipment maintenance and repair, and food waste recycling. Indeed, the launch of numerous culinary training programs and incubators in the last decade, the rising support for workforce development from $18.4 million in 2004 to over $76 million in 2017 from private foundations, and a recent infusion of $175 million from the State evidences the belief of food system actors and stakeholders in the potential of food jobs to enhance the economic status of low-wealth communities. By 2050, PE envisions employing 28 residents at livable and management-level wages to produce and manage small-scale manufacturing of prepared food, health and body, and agricultural products under the PE brand. These products would be created in partnership with rural farms, whose erstwhile decline will have reversed thanks in part to sourcing arrangements with PE and other downstate entities.

Food systems stakeholders will support municipalities to reach their sustainability goals. Cities like Toronto, Córdoba, Copenhagen, San Francisco, and New York have passed green roof legislation in the past decade, each requiring that a certain amount of rooftop space include green space. We envision PE and its partners riding this momentum over the next 30 years to advance the conversion of more spaces into viable, sustainable, high-yield production farms and to change public discourse about environmental sustainability. In 2050, we will have expanded our small-farm model by retrofitting existing urban spaces and designing green spaces in conjunction with low-income housing developments and healthcare institutions. Such efforts to transform otherwise underutilized terrain into productive spaces would provide ecosystem services to the city; urban agriculture has the capacity to produce an estimated 10% of the world’s produce output and provide $160 billion in benefits to cities globally, including: reduction of the urban heat-island effect, mitigation of flooding, nitrogen fixation, pest control, and energy savings. Similarly, our model for eliminating food waste also aligns with municipal priorities; scaling it could bring NYC closer to its goal of sending Zero Waste to landfills by the year 2030.

Food systems stakeholders will also push municipalities to develop polices that support community-based value chains. By 2050, our current efforts to install climate-controlled greenhouses will have changed city building policies and made it possible for urban farmers to obtain permits to build greenhouses, which will increase system capacity to grow and distribute food year-round. And policy shifts generated at the grassroots level will have created model policies for adoption at the city and state levels. PE plans to support such grassroots policy generation by contributing 3% of our annual net income to low-wealth communities to invest in community priorities, and we will support the viability of these projects with budgeting, financial management, and project oversight.

The world’s population is projected to be nearly 10 billion people by 2050, with 69% living in urban communities (as compared to 56.2% of the current 7.8 billion). By 2050, the U.S. population is projected to grow to 438 million with 92% of its population living in urban areas. As cities throughout the world urbanize, our charge is to adapt to address the environmental, technological, socio-economic, and cultural challenges of viably and sustainably producing healthy food and hopeful futures for urban communities in cities everywhere.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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nice project! all the best!

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