Harlem Grown Brings Chickens and Children Together

Nine baby chickens huddled together in a clear tank under a heat lamp. A few feet away were boxes of dill seedlings and strawberry plants.

Not yet fully feathered, they looked like scraggly yellow cotton balls, except for the one brown one.

They arrived at Harlem Grown from the Ethical Culture Fieldston School about a week ago, kicking off a new era for the nonprofit as it raises animals for the first time. Since 2011, Harlem Grown has cultivated seven spaces for farming, composting and hydroponic growing in the neighborhood, hoping to teach schoolchildren how to grow food and eat healthily.

Baby chickens hop around in their tank at Harlem Grown. The chicks were donated to the community garden by the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. Alyssa Pointer / NYT Institute

Five years and thousands of pounds of food later, Harlem Grown is seeking help from the chicks. Once they mature, they will reside in the separate lot used for composting, where their waste will be used as fertilizer.

The chickens will also provide fresh eggs for volunteers who work in the garden.

Children from Public School 197 and Public School 125, will come to Harlem Grown every day after school will help tend to the chickens. The children haven’t started working with the chicks yet because for now they need to stay under the heat.

“Teaching them how to care for another living thing is a very important tool,” said Tony Hillery, the owner and founder of Harlem Grown.

Greg Anderson, urban agriculture manager of Just Food, a New York City nonprofit that supports community farming, said children who work with farm animals can learn the value of life and the difference between a pet and a food source.

Caring for chickens requires rigorous planning, an understanding of the laws and a plan for each chicken for when it stops producing eggs, Mr. Anderson said.

The chicks in Harlem Grown’s space, on 134th Street between Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevards, don’t have names, but the brown one is LaTonya Assanah’s favorite, despite her efforts to remain unattached.

Ms. Assanah, 34, has been working with Harlem Grown for about five years. The first week of June marks one year since she began working in the greenhouse.

Five years ago, Ms. Assanah knew very little about growing food, but her daughter, Nevaeh Seeley, 9, visited Harlem Grown regularly while attending P.S. 175 Henry H. Garnet School.

One day Nevaeh came home and excitedly told her mother she had planted eggplant seeds. Ms. Assanah went to the garden to see who had taught her this; it was Mr. Hillery, who volunteered daily at P.S. 175 to teach children how to compost. In the process, he had become something of a father figure.

Red Swiss Chard germinates inside the Harlem Grown greenhouse. LaTonya Assanah, the greenhouse manager, gives the vegetables away to to prevent waste and promote the garden. Alyssa Pointer / NYT Institute

Ms. Assanah began to volunteer at the garden and eventually took over the greenhouse.The greenhouse employs hydroponics, the process of growing plants in liquid solutions rather than soil.

She didn’t know anything about the process, but was determined to learn, so she could give food to people collecting cans on the corner, and mothers in the nearby shelters, she said.

“It feels good to deliver it to them and know they’ll have that for tonight,” Ms. Assanah said.

She said she is in the greenhouse nearly every day, “sprinkling her love” on the mustard greens, arugula and romaine lettuce growing in pods arranged in neat rows.

Dejonte Jerrick knows that the best time to eat arugula is within 72 hours after harvesting. He doesn’t eat animals. He calls agriculture his profession.

Two years ago, Mr. Jerrick, 20, a Harlem resident, was working two jobs and looking for something different. One day he was walking down the street and saw Harlem Grown. It was love at first sight.

“The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘It’s beautiful,’” he said.

Mr. Jerrick credits his interest in agriculture to Mr. Hillery, who gave him an internship at Harlem Grown about four months ago.

After he completes his internship, Mr. Hillery will hire him. But the boss has rules.

“They must enroll in G.E.D. prep and they must open a bank account,” Mr. Hillery said of the interns who become employees.

Kerod Codd, a resident of the Bronx, followed those rules. Mr. Codd, 19, is preparing to go to college under Mr. Hillery’s guidance.

“Before I even started this, I had no direction,” he said. “Tony took me and showed me something different. You could make something out of yourself.”