Tony Hillery, Founder and Executive Director of Harlem Grown, will be speaking at the inaugural New York City Food Tank Summit, “Focusing on Food Loss and Food Waste,” which will be held in partnership with Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED) and with support from The Rockefeller Foundation and The Fink Family Foundation on September 13, 2017.

Hillery founded Harlem Grown to address the health and academic challenges facing public elementary school students in Harlem. In 2011, he began volunteering at a local elementary school and witnessed first-hand the lack of resources allocated to the schools and the poor nutrition of students. He transformed an abandoned garden, essentially a junkyard, into a thriving community garden. Hillery worked with community members to clean up the garbage, purchase soil, and purchase 400 seedlings for 400 students. As the students’ plants grew, their eating habits were also transformed, and the students developed leadership and teamwork skills. That first season, they grew 38 pounds of produce.

Tony Hillery, Founder and Executive Director of Harlem Grown, will be speaking at Food Tank's NYC Summit on September 13, 2017.
Tony Hillery, Founder and Executive Director of Harlem Grown, will be speaking at Food Tank’s NYC Summit on September 13, 2017.

By 2016, Harlem Grown expanded to partner with six local Harlem schools, reach more than 4,800 youth, and grow more than 2,200 pounds of fruits and vegetables that are then distributed to families-in-need throughout the community. This year, Harlem Grown will open a brand-new farm on 127th Street to continue to reach more youth in Harlem and inspire them to lead healthy and ambitious lives.

Food Tank talked with Hillery about the collective impact these gardens have on the communities of Harlem.

Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?

Tony Hillery (TH): One of my personal passions is education. I truly believe that education is the way out of a lot of situations. Once you have your education, it cannot be taken from you regardless of your socioeconomic position. Education is the way out. I kept reading about schools in the city, and I didn’t understand what I was reading. It didn’t make sense to me that we were living in one of the richest cities in the country, and we had such a disparity in education. I really didn’t understand it. I’m a show-me kind of guy, so I started volunteering at an elementary school in Harlem. That’s what did it. That’s what prompted everything else.

FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?

TH: To be completely honest, I didn’t have a plan when I started this—it all, excuse the pun, came organically. My original mission was to work with parents on the importance of education in breaking the cycle of poverty, but my focus quickly turned to children. As I spent more time in the schools, the conditions of the underserved communities in this country became crystal clear. As a youth, I used to come to Harlem all the time. We would come to Harlem; we would party in Harlem, but then go home. You see it, but you don’t see it. That’s a lot of us in this country. We’re aware, but we’re not aware. The more time I spent here, the more obvious the problems became. And very quickly it shifted to nutrition, food access, and food justice. I’m convinced that poverty is just lack of access and lack of opportunity. In the schools where we work, there are no services. There’s no extracurriculars. There’s no art. Some of the schools don’t even have gyms or music. The children we serve come to school for reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as breakfast, lunch, and supper. They’re having their three meals in school, and yet they can’t even identify simple vegetables. It’s a huge disconnect. And that’s how this whole thing came to be.

FT: Do you think that working with kids is one of the biggest opportunities to fix the food system?

TH: Absolutely. Early on when I first started this, I did like a lot of people did. I started working in the school, and as fate would have it, across the street was an abandoned community garden. I got the garden and made it a farm. After the first crop, I was sending the kids home with some kale and some chard, and the next day I would ask the children, ‘so how do you like that chard?’ They said, ‘I don’t know, my mother threw it away.’ So mom doesn’t know what it is or how to prepare it. This is part of the problem. A lot of us nonprofits miss the mark. We come into the community to teach that community or to show the community. If you think about how I started this conversation, that’s exactly what I did. I came into this community to teach parents the importance of education. Who am I to come into a community? I’m not from here, and I don’t live here. And if you think about it, that’s insulting on its face. I mean, I’m telling you basically, ‘you’re living wrong, I’m living right. Listen to me, I know better.’

FT: Did you have push back on that from community members?

TH: No, not directly push back, but the delivery was disingenuous. It wasn’t what you would think. It wasn’t what I thought. I thought people would be so welcoming—’Oh yes, tell me, tell me.’ No, no, it’s not that. People will come, they will sit there, and they will listen. But they don’t hear you. People will come to these workshops and things for the endgame. What’s the endgame? Is it a bag of groceries? Is it a gift card? They don’t hear, they’re not taking in what’s being provided. So quickly I pivoted; I focused on the children. We don’t come into the community. We become the community. We’re here seven days a week. We see these children every day, in school, after school, and on the weekends. And from that, through that consistency, we build relationships and trust that is unbelievable. And that’s our method. We went from showing children vegetables, and they’re like ‘what’s that?’ and ‘ew, ew, ew.’ To whatever we pick up and say ‘check this out, taste this,’ they’ll put it right in their mouth without questions and no apprehension at all. And if they do it, their peers do it. There’s a whole ring of trust we’ve created with our children. And it is like the ripple effect, they bring their siblings, they bring their mothers, they bring their friends. And that’s how we’re growing it from the bottom-up—literally grassroots, a bottom-up approach.

FT: So by working with the kids, you have been able to impact the community at large? 

TH: Absolutely. The population we serve is very, very challenged. The numbers move up and down, but overall, 80 percent of the children I serve are living in single parent households. Over 90 percent of my children live below the poverty line, 98 percent of our families are on food stamps, and 40 percent of the children we serve are homeless. That’s my population. So if you take a step back, nutrition is low on the list of priorities, if it’s on the list at all. We embrace the whole child. You can’t give a kid kale to take home when he doesn’t have a home or place to eat it.

FT: The work you’re doing is incredibly inspiring. What is the most inspiring experience you’ve had?

TH: Oh my god, there’s so many every day. That’s the beauty of working with children. Children are so genuine. There’s no agenda, and there’s no faking it. You get the unfiltered truth every day from these children. That is what keeps us on our toes. When we first started, we were working with children who not only didn’t eat anything green but couldn’t even identify vegetables other than a tomato and carrot. They got fuzzy on broccoli, and everything else is salad. And they didn’t eat salad. Today, they won’t have a meal without salad. And don’t give them iceberg or romaine; they want other leafy greens. They love chard. They love arugula. They love spinach. To see the change in the children that started with me six years ago is just amazing.

FT:  What is one small thing that everyone can do to help make this big difference?

TH: Realize that we are the change. The average person wants to do something tends to get stuck in neutral; they don’t know how to proceed, they don’t know how to take the next step. I just say, take the step. There’s nothing holding you back but you. If you see an injustice, if you see a problem, try to fix it. It’s as simple as that. A lot of us just sit back and wrestle with it. Just get involved, and see where it goes. It’s not a job; it’s a passion, to do something you love is not working. It’s not a talent to make money. Anybody can make money. But who can change a life for the better? That’s what we have to ask ourselves. Who can do that? And that’s what we do here. And oh my goodness, it is so rewarding. Each day is better than the next.

FT: Do you have anything else you want like to share with us?

TH: I must say, the name of my organization is Harlem Grown, but this problem is not unique to Harlem; this is not black, white, or brown. This is poor. This is a poverty issue. I’m all over the country speaking. I see poverty that makes my kids look rich. You see the same landscape. You see miles of fast-food restaurants. The closest supermarket is nine, ten miles away and nobody has a car. It is the same landscape as here in Harlem, as it is in the bayou in Louisiana or in West Virginia. You see the same exact thing: lack of access, lack of opportunity, and lack of education. Our children eat badly because it’s close, it’s cheap, and it’s convenient. In six years of doing this work, I have yet to meet a mother who would not want three organic meals of healthy, fresh vegetables and food for their kids. But you can’t afford it, and you can’t get it. Food is not optional. You have to eat. And if there’s a bodega on every corner selling cheap, processed food, that’s where they go. We have these catch phrases. We always say, ‘children are our future,’ and if that’s true, we really have to do something for these children.

Hillery recently received a CNN Hero award. Read about it HERE.