By Alana Pagano, GreenStar Community Projects Communications Coordinator

When you think of summer in Tompkins County, it’s easy to think of abundance. It’s peak growing season and, in an agriculturally dense region like Tompkins County, it feels like food is growing everywhere. Ironically, it’s summer that can be the most difficult for families facing food insecurity. Food is growing all around, but the critical missing piece is school food — the lack of which results in hunger for at least one-fifth of our children.

GreenStar Community Projects (GSCP) — our co-op’s non-profit affiliate — responds to this by coordinating youth programs and food distribution when school is out. The center of this work is Esty Street Garden, GSCP’s wheelchair-accessible urban garden. Through collaborative efforts with CFCU Community Credit Union, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Loaves & Fishes, GSCP opened the Esty Street Garden in late 2017 in a previously dormant lot next to CFCU. The mission of the Garden is to provide the space and community support for low-income youth and young adults to learn to grow their own food in a fun, nurturing environment, and to empower youth to advocate for their own nutritional needs.

In 2018, GSCP launched its first full season of youth programming at Esty Street Garden. Garden Coordinator Lee Yoke Lee instructed teen workers from Youth Employment Services and groups of students from BOCES, GIAC, New Roots School, Lehman Alternative Community School, and more. Adapting a Seed-to-Supper curriculum, Lee taught the students gardening skills, guided them to experientially learn about their local food system, and supervised peer-led cooking classes. Food the students were not able to bring home was provided to the community through donations to Loaves & Fishes (the Garden’s food-pantry partner within walking distance), where the students also volunteered, and through curbside #FoodIsFree events. “The crowning moment of working the good earth with these wonderful youth,” wrote Lee Yoke Lee, “was when one of them said, ‘I want to come back next year.’”

This season, students will learn all aspects of garden systems, from soil prep to composting. They will get to experiment with crops of their choice and learn dehydration methods to grow food now for later seasons. Creativity will be encouraged in the garden and through the sharing of food stories, which they will have the opportunity to publish on our advocacy platform, Hot Potato Press.

GSCP is actively working to increase the inclusivity and impact of the Garden. This season, the Garden will be an official Neighborhood Food Hub — an informal food redistribution system developed by our key partner, Friendship Donations Network. As a Neighborhood Food Hub, the Garden will serve as a pop-up food pantry of sorts, where excess vegetables and donated food (from other local gardens, farms, and businesses) will be made available to the community. We’re developing contacts with families of disabled children to promote the use of our wheelchair-accessible beds, built last year by BOCES students. We’re also collaborating with the Child Development Council to encourage single parents with children under the age of 5 — 60 percent of whom live in poverty — to practice gardening and gain community support via the Esty Street Garden.

To support and build on these efforts, GSCP hosted a networking session on “School and Community Gardens for Food Self-Reliance” on April 4. School teachers and staff, paid staff and volunteers from food-related non-profits, farmers, community organizers, and more came together to share ideas and increase collaboration between school and community gardens. It’s heartening to have so many people come together locally to address the issue of food insecurity in concrete ways.

Ithaca’s Comprehensive Plan proudly states that residents “will enjoy food security” and “have opportunities to grow their own food locally through private or community gardens.” GreenStar Community is working to make this a reality.

Interested in joining this work? Super-worker owners can earn credit through volunteering at the Esty Street Garden! You can help with gardening, outreach, or mentoring youth. There’s also the option of joining the GSCP board! For details about the latter, email holly@greenstar.coop.