This time of year, local pears get so juicy
they’re best eaten over the sink, and fragrant varieties of apple
you might have forgotten about since last fall reappear. But
at the small, yet bountiful, Red Hook farmer’s market, not just
the fruit is local. Neighborhood teens are selling greens, tomatoes,
and herbs they started as seeds on a quarter acre in Far Rockaway
alongside flowers and baby lettuces that they’ve grown right
in Red Hook.
These gardening youths are involved in a program called Added Value, which is proving, among other things, that it’s possible to farm in even the most urban areas of Brooklyn. The variety, quantity and pristine quality that Added Value brings to Coffey Park every Saturday is cause for wonder.
For starters, who would think to gather a group of high schoolers and turn them on to growing vegetables?
The idea dawned on Ian Marvy, the co-founder of Added Value, while he was directing the Red Hook Youth Court. Marvy and co-founder Michael Hurwitz began working with kids in a Red Hook community garden as community service work for the Youth Court.
Added Value’s roots are in this garden. Once, while Marvy and Hurwitz were weeding with a young man on staff at the Youth Court, Marvy pulled up a dandelion green and ate it.
"That’s gross," his companions told him. They weren’t convinced by an explanation of the health benefits of the green, nor did they consider it appetizing when he suggested sauteing it with bacon. To them, the leaf wasn’t food yet.
So Marvy put it in numbers, saying, "If we take this 10-foot by 10-foot plot, grow 50 heads of dandelion and sell them at $1 per quarter head, three times a summer, we can make over $500 from $1.25 in seeds."
That did the trick.
"When can we get started?" the young man asked.
This was all it took to convince Hurwitz, with his background in social work, Little League coaching and working with Red Hook youths, and Marvy, whose career has encompassed almost as much work with food as with young people. They set out to offer neighborhood teens an opportunity to grow food, learn about nutrition and develop leadership skills.
The initial plan was to sell their produce on a traveling cart in the neighborhood. Then, the Big R Supermarket closed, leaving 11,000-plus residents of Red Hook without a major grocery store. (This was the case through the spring and most of the summer of 2001.)
So Marvy and Hurwitz "decided to bite off more than we could chew and start a farmer’s market to bring high-quality, fresh produce to Red Hook at fair prices," said Marvy.
During the winter of 2000-’01, they consulted experts and residents about the feasibility of their plans. They secured land in Far Rockaway and on Wolcott Street in Red Hook, and they recruited kids by word of mouth and through Hurwitz’s work at George Westinghouse High School in Downtown Brooklyn.
But what does it really take to convince a self-respecting teenager to get down in the mud in Tommy Hilfiger jeans to pull weeds? It takes enthusiastic leaders, the intrigue of doing something new and a real wage.
In April 2001, Added Value was up and running with 15 participants, and the farmers’ market was a reality. In addition to the kids in the program, many others frequent Added Value’s Van Brunt Street office. It’s a cluttered, open-doors kind of place, where Marvy and Hurwitz sit chatting, listening, helping with resume writing or offering the use of their fax machine.
These guys are realistic optimists, and it’s clear they have a rapport with the teenagers with whom they work. Not that the teens selling vegetables at the farmers’ market exhibit the same unbridled enthusiasm. Asked if they like growing and selling food, the predominant response was, "Yeah, it’s alright."
Ask Jasminah Rexach, 15, why she decided to join Added Value, and she’ll tell you she "wanted to do something, not sit around and do nothing." Fair enough. She says she likes watering and planting; harvesting is harder. But her mom is pleased with the tomatoes, peppers and flowers she brings home.
There’s a lot of sweaty labor involved in bringing excellent vegetables to the farmers’ market each week. Pedro Rodriguez, 17, said it’s "easy, once you get into it. Except for weeding in the hot sun."
Overall, Ralph Sostre, 15, finds Added Value less taxing than his other job, house painting. He says there’s more sitting down and more fun. And he likes eating the collards, although he leaves the cooking to his mother.
The produce these kids sell is supremely fresh, clean and well presented. The soil they farm in Far Rockaway has a high mineral content, which produces strong-flavored leafy greens and intense, fresh herbs.
"We had a couple restaurateurs last year, coming down to buy [our herbs], because they’re that kind of quality," Marvy says with pride. Although they aren’t certified organic, the farming is organic, and their land has never been farmed inorganically. In Red Hook they plant in containers or raised beds, since the soil contains heavy metals.
Added Value’s baby lettuces are tender and flavorful, without the droopy, torn leaves of greens trucked in from afar. The young salespeople encourage shoppers to try the green peppers or purple pole beans. One of their next projects will be Saturday cooking demonstrations, to foster interest in new ingredients.
The goals of this improbable enterprise are unlike those of the other farmers at the Red Hook market; it’s not a moneymaking proposition.
Nonetheless, Added Value workers earn a monthly stipend that amounts to about $6 an hour. Sales at the weekend market bring in, at most, half these labor costs. About a third of the program’s expenses for the next three years have been covered by outside funding, including money from Independence Community Bank. Marvy recently received an Echoing Green Fellowship, and he and Hurwitz just paid themselves for the first time, although they are not yet salaried.
"That," Marvy grins, "is the non-profit world."
Zoe Singer is a freelance
food writer and Brooklyn native.
Added Value is at 305 Van Brunt St. between Pioneer and King streets in Red Hook. For more information or to make a donation of money, time or resources, call (718) 855-5531.
The Red Hook Farmers’ Market takes place in Coffey Park, at the corner of Richards and Pioneer streets, every Saturday, from 9 am to 3 pm, from the third week of June through the Saturday before Thanksgiving (weather permitting). Over the next two months, they will be giving away several 15- to 20-pound organic, free-range turkeys. All vendors at the Red Hook Farmer’s Market accept EBT, MasterCard, Visa and NYCE debit cards.