Community Gardens Fear Wilting Under Massive Cuts in Federal Block-Grant Money

By Adrian Fussell

Looming federal budget cuts mean that community gardens across New York City will likely face a severe, life-threatening drought. And the seeds of protest are already sprouting.

Supporters of GreenThumb, the city's primary community gardening supplier, rallied on the steps of City Hall last Tuesday, April 5, to ask the city to step in. Many of the 50 or so protesters sang, "Give Peas a Chance!"

GreenThumb will probably lose most, or all, of its $800,000 budget for the rest of this year and next. Last year, GreenThumb supplied roughly 600 community gardens with lumber, mulch, and workshops on city-style farming.

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Current budget proposals for HUD's $4 billion Community Development Block Grant program are devastating — even President Barack Obama calls for $300 million in cuts. The GOP plan — $2.5 billion in cuts — would eviscerate the CDBG program, which for years has set up and funded thousands of desperately needed projects all across the country that go far beyond community gardens.

For their own part, the activists say that CDBG cuts resulting in the loss of GreenThumb's supplies and instruction would endanger a local farming industry worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and turn the miniature urban parks into the vacant, rubble-strewn lots that the community gardens originally replaced during the turbulent '70s.

"Right now the city does not give any money to GreenThumb. If the fed grant money does not come through, we are urging the city to step up to the plate," says Karen Washington, president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition.

Last Tuesday's rally did attract a few City Council members who showed up to lend support, and at one point, the crowd aimed its chants at Mayor Michael Bloomberg as he slipped past them and into the building.

"We as a community need to figure out a way to communicate effectively with those in power," says Ray Figueroa, program director of Friends of Brook Park. "We have to talk their language. Their language is numbers."

Figueroa's project tries to bring healthy, locally grown food to people living in an area thick with fast-food restaurants and high rates of obesity and diabetes. (The Bronx as a whole is the state's unhealthiest county, NY1 recently noted.)

"Soil, lumber, seeds, technical assistance, workshops, conferences. That's hardcore stuff!" says Figueroa. "In the scheme of things, $800,000 provides a lot, and we get a bang for the buck."

Farming Concrete, a research project run by community volunteers, charts the value of New York City's urban farm produce. In its interactive map, the project found that Figueroa and 66 other farmers grew $214,000 worth of produce in 2010.


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