It is Valentine’s Day, and Karen Washington is getting ready for a date with her chickens.
Slipping into a cobalt-colored coat, Washington grips two bags of leftover vegetables- her lunch-partner’s meal. She crosses the street and enters a small urban farm across her house, the Garden of Happiness, where hungry chickens ambush her, clucking for food.
“The eggs they lay belong to the neighborhood,” Washington says, smiling at the birds. “Everyone is family here.”
Washington’s tidy garden feels like it belongs to yuppie Brooklyn, not a disadvantaged, majority-black West Bronx. When Washington moved to her current home over 30 years ago, 27% of her neighborhood lived below the poverty line; today, that number is closer to 32%. A few blocks away from the urban oasis, abandoned housing projects dotted with broken windows and shuttered doors loom over litter-filled streets. Despite the apparent disparities, Washington believes that the Garden of Happiness will help combat the rampant poverty in her neighborhood.
“In America, if you’re poor, you’re forced to eat unhealthy food,” Washington says. “Just because I’m poor economically, doesn’t mean I have to have poor housing, poor health, poor human rights. So we grow our own healthy food, our eggs, our vegetables, which lets us function outside of the oppressive system.”
According to the Food Research and Action Center, obesity rates in the United States are highest amongst low-income people. Rates of obesity increase further for those with less education, and further still for those who are black or Latino. African Americans have the highest obesity rate of any other group in the country, 48%, followed by Hispanics, 34%.
Before Washington co-founded the Garden of Happiness, she had been the type of working mother who took her two kids to McDonald’s on weekends and fed them canned fruit. She worked busily as a physical therapist and thought about food in terms of convenience, not quality. It wasn’t until Washington noticed her son gain weight that “something clicked”, and she decided to do something about their diet. With The Garden of Happiness, Washington was able to do what few disadvantaged families in urban America can: take control of what they put in their bodies.
Washington says that The Garden of Happiness was a result of great fortune. One day in 1988, Washington was in her kitchen and looked on as her Mexican neighbor, José Lugo, shoveled the empty lot across her street. Lugo said he wanted to transform the plot into a garden, and Washington loved the idea. With help from the Bronx Botanical Garden, which was leading initiatives to create urban farms, Washington and her neighbors produced a garden apt for growing all types of fruits and vegetables.
At times, Washington speaks with the vigor of a preacher, exuding so much passion that her body shakes. She talks about how black farmers make up less that 1% of the total U.S. farming population as a result of discriminatory laws, such as background checks that make it more difficult for people of color to obtain farms.
“The people of this neighborhood are people who maybe have never, and never will, own any land,” she says. “Being able to have something to call their own, a place they can nurture their own plants which are part of their own culture and history, is such a powerful weapon.”
In the years following the founding of the Garden of Happiness, Washington wanted to create similar gardens to increase access to healthy food across the city. She eventually become the president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition and co-founded the Black Urban Growers (BUGS). The impact Washington has had on individuals is undeniable. Ursula Chanse met Washington when she started working in the Bronx 12 years ago.
“There are so many countless people Karen has mentored and taught,” says Chanse, who refers to Washington as an “inspiration”. Kathleen McTigue, who also worked alongside Washington, says Washington taught her “to listen to the stories and paths of others in our gardens”, referring to how Washington’s urban farms have fostered close-knit communities.
The Garden of Happiness contains a small, colorful shed and an education center for visiting children. Semi-feral cats weave through the garden.
But the extent of Washington’s large-scale impact is a more complicated question to answer. Christopher Schlottmann, an Environmental Studies professor at New York University and author of the book “Conceptual Challenges for Environmental Education”, praises the positive influence a neighborhood garden can have on its inhabitants. An urban farm like Washington’s, says Schlottmann, can teach people “practical” skills like business management and how markets work.
However, despite hype surrounding urban farming as the solution to future food security crises, Schlottmann remains skeptical.
“The amount of food we can grown in cities is not going to be very much, even in the most ambitious fantasy scenario,” he says. “Urban farms are not the solution to food security and food justice- they’re really just a stepping stone.”
Whether or not Washington will lead a major shift in how poor people of color eat in cities, her influence is already notable. In 2012, she was named in Ebony Magazine’s list of the nation’s 100 Most Influential African Americans, which included Beyoncé and Obama. She has been featured in The New York Times and PBS.
Yet, for someone who has received so much adoration in the past years, Washington remains, like her vegetables, loyal to her roots. Washington prays before all her meals, as her parents and grandparents did before her.
“I speak to God everyday,” she says. “And despite these difficult times, He told me things are going to get better. Racism is finally coming to the surface. And part of the entire system of oppression has to do with food. Food is about so much more than what you eat; it’s about your body, your mind. We need to take control of that. This country has converted healthy food into a luxury reserved for the wealthy and white. But brown and black people are finally beginning to find their voice.”