Callaloo and Collard Greens: Caribbean Women Farm Central Brooklyn

Brenda Thompson Duchene, an Aruba native, manages 3 community gardens in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Photo by Manolia Charlotin

Brenda Thompson Duchene, an Aruba native, manages 3 community gardens in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Photo by Manolia Charlotin

bk gardens - chapter 3 collage

Powell Street Garden in Brownsville (left and right); Victory Garden in Bed-Stuy (center) – Photos by Ayinde Jean-Baptiste and Brenda Duchene

“My people need fresh food”

When Dr. Melony Samuels received an urgent call to help a family in need, she brought them a few boxes of groceries from her own pantry. The calls kept coming from all over the neighborhood. That’s how Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger (BSCHA) was founded–one family at a time. Now it’s Brooklyn’s largest food pantry, with Samuels as its executive director.

“Quite frankly, many of us lack access to good food,” said Dara Cooper, the director of NYC Food and Fitness Partnership at Bed-Stuy Restoration Corporation. “And many of us are working to find many ways in which we can address that issue…” Cooper is a longtime food justice advocate who works in Central Brooklyn–comprised of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, East New York, Crown Heights and Bushwick. Like many urban areas around the country, home to low-income black communities, these neighborhoods have been labeled “food deserts.”

Listen to Brenda Thompson Duchene, Dara Cooper and Dr. Melony Samuels.

Separate and Unequal

Brenda Thompson Duchene used to buy her groceries on the way home from work. When she left her Manhattan job and began to buy produce near her home in Brownsville, Duchene noticed a significant difference in quality. Her fruits and vegetables would spoil much faster. Others in the neighborhood complained about the same thing. Residents have to choose between chemically-treated produce, processed foods, or fast food–which exacerbate health problems in communities with high rates of diabetes and obesity.

Farmers markets are rare. Fears and misconceptions have kept farmers away from Central Brooklyn, and many local residents are unfamiliar with alternatives to local grocery stores and bodegas. So Duchene and her fellow members of the Isabahlia Ladies of Elegance Foundation transformed one of the local community gardens into a small production farm.

A Culture of Growing

Drawing from their childhood experiences in the Caribbean, and a resonance with African-American neighbors who migrated from the South, Duchene and Samuels have emerged as leaders in Brooklyn’s fresh food movement.

View Part 2 in this series Callaloo and Collard Greens: Every Brooklyn Garden Tells a Story

Co-produced by Ayinde Jean-Baptiste, creator of DrumLanguage, a podcast which examines the black experience across the African diaspora. Brooklyn-born and Chicago-bred, Ayinde’s digital home is ThunderMakingWords.com.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, and the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation.

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