The first time Lily Johnson stepped foot in the garden, she thought it looked more like a jungle.
It was August, and Lily had just started her job as a FoodCorps educator at our Samara Community School in the Bronx. Part of the AmeriCorps Service Network (Habitat for Humanity, City Year, and Teach for America), FoodCorps places service members at schools across the country to help kids connect with food in new ways.
Samara was already an ideal location for FoodCorps because Children’s Aid has for years operated a beautiful backyard garden behind the school. But Lily’s predecessor, Rachel Vasquez, took on an additional project: Securing the rights to an abandoned and overgrown community garden a few lots away from the school on Vyse Avenue.
“There were racoons and rats and all kinds of animals,” Lily said. “People were calling 311 to complain about this lot every day.”
Lily had studied anthropology in college, and she was interested in the role of food in medicine and public health. She didn’t have any experience in gardening, but that was about to change.
The rehabilitation began with a group of supers from the neighborhood clearing out the overgrown brush and saplings. Then Lily invited all 14 FoodCorps members from across New York City to join her for a full day of landscaping. Finally, they got some outdoor furniture so that the kids could experience outdoor classrooms. Since it was already well into the fall, they would have to wait until spring to begin planting.
During the schoolyear, the space became a sanctuary for outdoor learning during a year that was otherwise consumed by Zoom classrooms. “Kids are out here five days a week,” Lily said. “It’s been really helpful for them to have the opportunity to get outside and have a change of scenery. By next year, when we’ve returned to more normalcy, it’ll be an even more expansive garden space.”
Lily is one of three FoodCorps service members at Children’s Aid schools across the city. And all three have won “Grow to Learn” grants from GrowNYC throughout the year. “These women have done a wonderful job growing our gardens and supporting our children,” said Whitney Reuling, director of food and nutrition programs at Children's Aid. “These are vital spaces for kids to experience new surroundings and learn more about the natural world.”
At Samara, that grant money has gone to building a shade structure and a water system for the garden. The 90-by-40-foot lot now has five garden beds and a central play area. There are plastic panes for water-color painting, and they’re planning an environmentally friendly moss mural on one of the walls. “This is going to be a multi-dimensional space,” Lily said. “There’s going to be music and reading and art, and of course, food. We’re going to have kale and spinach and fresh greens, and hopefully some fruit trees as well.”
For Lily, one of the most rewarding parts has been seeing the way that the community has rallied around the garden reclamation project. After a long and dark year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the garden has become at least a symbol for rebirth and renewal.
“The people in the neighborhood are so excited,” she said. “There’s been a lot of community engagement. Every time I’m out there, a neighbor will peak over the fence and start talking to me about how the garden is going. This was once a part of the neighborhood that the entire community enjoyed, and it will be again.”