Turning vacant lots into lush plots

Around New Haven, lots once full of weeds are blossoming into gardens full of delicious greens.

A project conceived by Justin Freiberg FES ’10 is turning vacant lots around New Haven into sustainable community gardens. Freiberg founded the Urban Foodshed Collaborative this past summer with the goals of introducing New Haven teenagers to environmentalism and entrepreneurship while providing New Haven restaurants and residents with fresh, locally grown food.

“I’ve seen the power of consumers connecting to where their food comes from,” Freiberg said, citing the success of farmer’s markets. “Urban youth are a demographic often left out of this equation.”

After working on a similar program that operates an urban farm in Brooklyn, Freiberg saw the possibility of such a program succeeding in New Haven, he said.

Many New Haven neighborhoods lack access to locally grown food, but they do have vacant lots and high populations of unemployed teenagers, Freiberg said. Rather than seeing these issues as problems, he said he saw them as opportunities.

This summer, Freiberg employed four high school students and turned four vacant lots around the city into sustainable gardens. Some of the produce from the gardens was sold to restaurants such as Miya’s Sushi, while the remainder was given to community members, Freiberg said.

The program got off the ground with financial and other assistance from various partners, including the Urban Resources Initiative, a Yale-affiliated nonprofit organization.

URI Director Colleen Murphy-Dunning said without the 501(c)3 non-profit status of her organization, city groups such as Youth @ Work would not have sent students to work for the Urban Foodshed Collaborative.

Murphy-Dunning also pointed to the importance of the entrepreneurship aspect of Freiberg’s program.

“It introduced youth to how to grow food,” Murphy-Dunning said. “There’s lots of ways to do that, but he did it in this entrepreneurial way, showing the youth not only how to grow the food but how to connect it to local markets.”

The Urban Foodshed Collaborative’s partner organizations also included the New Haven Land Trust, Common Ground High School in the West Rock neighborhood, the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Yale Divinity School, the Yale Sustainable Food Project and the New Haven Livable Cities Initiative.

Though the program only involved four teenagers and four lots this past summer, Freiberg said he is looking to expand the program as long as doing so not compromise its quality.

“We’re seeking to grow in a capacity that maintains quality relationships and mentoring for the youths,” Freiberg said.

Freiberg said he anticipates the program could eventually run from the spring to the fall and involve more students, though he added that the organization would first have to find more volunteers to help coordinate the program.

Another long-term goal for the program, Freiberg said, is to become financially self-sufficient by selling food to cover its expenses instead of relying on grants and sponsor organizations.

Freiberg said one of the special aspects of the program was that it provided the teenagers with summer income and taught them about sustainability at the same time.

“You can’t force the issue of environmentalism or food justice down their throats,” Freiberg said.

Freiberg added that he hoped to turn the students into “social entrepreneurs” and inspire them to come up with their own ideas for businesses that would help their communities.

Comments

  • joeyale

    This is an admirable and important program! Get behind it!

  • D. Bruneau-Lester

    I’ve read the article on sustainablility and have wanted to start something like this in North Haven but don’t have a clue how to get started. I also lead a volunteer organization (Telephone Pioneers) and would be interested in getting volunteers for these types of projects.