Over the weekend, one Bronx urban farmer — whose green thumb began over three decades ago — was honored for her hard work and dedication in helping bring fresh and locally grown food to all New Yorkers.
The Earth Day Initiative honored Karen Washington on April 17 with the 2016 Earth Day Initiative/Natural Resource Defense Council-NY Award during its Earth Day celebration kick-off event in Union Square.
Washington began farming in 1985 when she moved to the Bronx and purchased a house with a big backyard. With no farming experience at all, she began to grow vegetables — such as tomatoes, collard greens, and peppers — and fell in love with it.
“Once I tasted the vegetables, I was hooked,” Washington said. “What urban gardening and farming is, what it does, is more than just growing food. There’s a culture behind it, there’s a story behind it.”
The growing did not stop there. For over three years Washington said she had looked out her window and saw a garbage-filled empty lot in front of her house and finally in 1988, with the help of a neighbor, was able to start a community garden called the Garden of Happiness.
From there, Washington became active through the New York Botanical Gardens and worked with various Bronx neighborhoods to help turn empty lots into community gardens.
When New York City began to target community gardens, Washington fought for the protection and preservation of the grounds and began gathering with other advocates.
“We knew that we had to become active,” she said. “That’s when I got my voice.”
Now — along with running the Rise & Root Farm in Chester, NY with her friends since 2015 and continuing to care for her garden in the Bronx — Washington said she doesn’t just concentrate on growing food, but also looks at the food system as a whole and examines who is being treated fairly and who isn’t.
“In a country that we have so much wealth, we have hunger and poverty,” she said. “I continue to speak out against the injustices.”
Washington leads workshops on how to grow food and also on food justice for gardeners all over the city — and of all financial backgrounds — and giving everyone the access to healthy food choices.
She said she encourages people to think and not be afraid to ask where their food comes from. She also believes food should be properly labeled, agriculture should be taught in schools and every city school should have a garden.
“You should know what you are eating, you should know how important it is to get food locally,” she said. “Ask questions.”
The Bronx resident also helped co-found Black Urban Growers, a volunteer-based organization with a mission to build networks and community support for growers in both urban and rural areas.
The group will host a conference in Harlem from Nov. 4 through Nov. 6 and Washington said the conference will allow young black men and women to “have the chance to see a black farmer, get a chance to see a black food advocate and activist.”
She added that she encourages people, who find an empty lot and want to possibly start a garden or farm of their own, to not be afraid and use the power they have to get it done.
“I no longer look at my community in terms of deficits, I look at it in term of assets,” she said. “It takes a lot to survive when you have nothing. They made something out of nothing.”
As for the Earth Day award, Washington said she is humbled for the individual recognition but wants to take the award in honor of everyone who has lead the garden and farming movement to where it is now.
“I’m humbled by it. I’m just doing what comes naturally,” she said. “I’m going to take [the award] and it’s going to be for those that continue to do the work like I do and for those who have set the path for me to have a voice.”