Joining Forces To Bring Healthy Food And Change To Communities

See how Unilever is helping the Wagner Houses Farm bring opportunity, nutrition, education and delicious produce to an East Harlem neighborhood.

Green City Force Team and Unilever Volunteers
Wagner Houses Farm plot planning

To accomplish the Unilever goal of improving nutrition, making sure everyone has access to healthy food is a major step. One way of achieving this is investing to develop urban farms. 

When urban farms are built in a city’s under-served neighborhoods, they not only can increase access to healthy ingredients, but also provide information about healthy eating. Our partnership with the Green City Force is helping to do both at the Wagner Houses in East Harlem. 

A Community With Food Challenges

The Wagner Houses in East Harlem are set in a low-income neighborhood, with its own food challenges. 

East Harlem has fewer supermarkets and three times more fast food outlets per resident than the Upper East Side just to the south. Not surprisingly, this comes with higher rates of obesity and diabetes. Food access likely plays a major part; a survey Unilever conducted found that only 1 in 5 Wagner House residents eat more than one serving of vegetables each day. Luckily, our partnership to build the Wagner Houses Farm is helping to address these problems.   

The Local Solution

Green City Force Members explaining the farm planning to a passer-by.

Wagner Houses Farm is part of Building Healthy Communities (BHC), a city-wide partnership designed to improve health outcomes in 12 neighborhoods in New York City. Led by the Mayor's Office of Strategic Partnerships and the Fund for Public Health NYC, BHC aims to improve opportunities for physical activity, expand access to healthy, affordable food, and promote public safety. The Mayoral initiative is supporting five urban farms at public housing developments in partnership with NYCHA, Green City Force and community partners.

At the Wagner Houses Farm, residents of the community can help grow and harvest vegetables, or bring their compostable waste to weekly farm stands in exchange for local-grown produce. Unilever is also running cooking classes for residents to help them prepare tasty, nutritious meals with the produce growing right between their apartments.

Beyond just providing vegetables, this farm is helping enhance livelihoods as well. Green City Force is an AmeriCorps program that trains and employs young residents of New York City Public Housing in all manner of sustainability efforts, from energy conservation to building farms like the Wagner Resident Farm.

We spoke with Tonya Gayle, the Chief Development Officer of Green City Force, to hear about the Wagner Houses Farm project and how it will impact the community: 

What does the farm look like today?

Early construction and planning walkways through garden

It's a quarter-acre smack in the middle of a major pass way within the development, which is about 22 buildings.

There are very large beds built right now. There are pathways between the beds that allow access as a travel path.

How did you decide what to grow there?

Leafy greens sprouting

Well, it's a combination of feedback from the residents and things that we know make sense for this time of year. The bulk for this season will be leafy-green oriented, whereas next year it could also be cucumbers and tomatoes.

Can you tell us about the young people tending the farm?

Our organization is targeted specifically for residents of New York City public housing between 18 and 24 years old who have either a high school diploma or the equivalent.

We have two major paths that we engage young people in, and this particular group that is with us spends 10 months in service.

They're building the farms, they're learning about urban agriculture, they're learning more broadly about sustainability, they're building their workforce skills in the classroom roughly one day a week. 

How will the farms be sustained? 

Young Wagner House resident helping

We want to make sure it’s not something that’s just created and then dropped off a year or two later. Each of the communities that we're working with, we've measured interest and identified which groups in the neighborhood would be best to help us sustain [the farm] for the long term since our AmeriCorps members graduate the program and end up in many types of employment.

 What are some of the jobs your program’s graduates move on to? 

Somebody who was in our Corps last year graduated and she was hired by one of the community-based organizations focused on urban agriculture. This is very cool and ideally the goal. We want folks to have the experience to build their skills and then move on to have family-supporting careers. 

Another example is a young man who I think was 22 when he graduated. He's a young parent of two children. He had no pathway to employment. He's now doing composting at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden so he has a career track and he's able to support his family. 

How do projects like the Wagner Houses Farm impact the surrounding communities?

Young community members helping fill in planting beds.

It's a combination of providing food and education. This access and the educational cooking demonstrations help the community  literally think differently about ways to eat. 

Then the community itself is also transforming a space that may or may not have been positive space. It also gives them a place to be proud of in their community. 

Green City Force AmeriCorps members and community members in the gardens.

Part of this is it's only successful if the residents embrace it. There aren't gates on the farms, there aren't locks on the farms. You have multiple generations interested in this space and they are volunteering and they are doing the gardening themselves and collecting the food. We're doing training groups with school children in neighborhoods, and you've got multiple levels of engagement. 

You also have young people watching the older AmeriCorps Members as role models doing positive things.

Part Of The Unilever Sustainable Food Plan 

The Wagner Houses Farm project perfectly complements each of the three pillars of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, and mirrors our goals of creating a healthier, more sustainable and more prosperous future:  

Reducing Environmental Impact: Community composting helps keep produce-based waste out of landfills where it creates greenhouse gas . In our own company, we are seeking to halve the environmental footprint of our products by 2030 . 

Improving Health & Well-being: This farm should expand access to healthy food throughout the whole community at no cost to residents. For our own food brands, Unilever is committed to doubling the proportion of our portfolio that meets the highest nutritional standards by 2020 

Enhancing Livelihoods: By supporting the Green City Force, we’re helping young people find gainful employment when they otherwise may not have had opportunities. We’re pushing to improve livelihoods in our own business as well, like helping small-scale farmers and retailers thrive .  

We’re proud to support this effort, and excited to see how the Wagner Houses Farm can help expand food access and education to the entire community and beyond. 

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