Nonprofit Radical Living teams up with the city’s GreenThumb initiative to educate young people about community gardening, healthy eating and sustainability.

Denise Higgins helps young volunteers inspect their plants. Photo credit: Alex Williamson for BK Reader

On Saturday, a group of kids and teenagers from Brooklyn gathered in the churchyard of Calvary Fellowship AME in Bed-Stuy. They didn’t give up their afternoon for a church service or a potluck; they came to pull weeds, harvest veggies and prepare a salad.

The kids are part of a group called Radical Living, a non-profit co-founded by Vonetta and Jason Storbakken, which works with young people ranging in age from five to 17. The group takes its name from the Latin root of the word “radical” – “radix” or “from the root,” and is grounded in the belief that gardening has the potential to be revolutionary on a personal, communal and global scale. In partnership with local church groups and the NYC Parks GreenThumb program, Radical Living aims to build community around food, sustainable practices and green spaces.

Greg Anderson from GreenThumb discusses the history of community gardens in NYC with young Radical Living volunteers. Photo credit: Alex Williamson for BK Reader

Vonetta Storbakken, who studied environmental systems management at Pratt Institute, had the idea for the garden in 2015 after she attended a workshop at the church and met Denise Higgins, Calvary’s director of Christian education. She noticed ample open space in the churchyard and wanted to put it to use.

“I just reached out to her and I asked, ‘Can I use that empty space to start an urban farm for the youth in that neighborhood?’ And she said, ‘Sure, why not?’” Storbakken recalled.

A boy harvests a handful of the tomatoes he helped to grow. Photo credit: Alex Williamson for BK Reader

Every Saturday, the young Radical Living volunteers meet to tend the small churchyard garden and to work on the larger lot just down the block which they’ve been gradually transforming into an urban farm since April. With the support of community members and the city’s GreenThumb workers, the kids learn how to garden in urban soils, how to turn their harvest into a healthy meal and about their own roles in the food cycle. So far, they’ve grown herbs like basil and mint, and veggies like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and corn.

“I learned to farm from my elders,” said Gregory Anderson, GreenThumb’s outreach coordinator. “They gave me all the knowledge that I have about growing food and about living, and asked me to pass that knowledge on to people younger than me.”

The NYC Parks Department started its GreenThumb program over 40 years ago in response to the community gardens which sprang up during the recession in the ’70s, when many buildings were being abandoned or burned, and empty lots were becoming magnets for garbage and crime. Neighbors in all five boroughs began transforming these empty lots into green spaces.

“The city saw that communities were actually helping the city,” Anderson said. “So the city decided to support these communities.”

Since then, GreenThumb has been helping community gardeners to clean and level out their lots, inviting them to gardening workshops, and providing them with supplies like wood and clean soil.

Young Radical Living volunteers sort their home-grown veggies while co-founder Vonetta Storbakken looks on. Photo credit: Alex Williamson for BK Reader

Ellis Carter, a young volunteer who attended the workshop on Saturday, said participating in the garden has made him think about pollution and how it affects the food on our plates.

“We drive a lot,” said Carter. “We should walk more, instead of putting all these harmful chemicals into the air. What we put into our air is what we put into our bodies.”

Co-founder of Radical Living and Mennonite pastor Jason Storbakken sees the group’s mission as a natural extension of his faith, specifically the Mennonite teachings of pacifism and social justice.

Co-founder of Radical Living Jason Storbakken. Photo credit: Alex Williamson for BK Reader

“It’s about being a good witness and letting the light that’s in each of us shine into the world,” Storbakken said.

Through an offshoot called the HOW Green! Initiative, Storbakken hopes to partner with churches, synagogues and mosques throughout the city to replicate the community gardening model.

In addition to their work on the garden, Radical Living is currently collecting school supplies and backpacks for kids in Bed-Stuy. Supplies can be donated at the Calvary Fellowship AME on Sundays and Tuesdays, which will be distributed to the community on August 25 at the annual jamboree. Neighbors are invited to join Calvary Fellowship for a barbeque, workshop, and arts and crafts.

Radical Living is also welcoming volunteers to help with the urban farm, the youth program and the HOW Green! Initiative. To learn more, go here.

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Alex Williamson

Alex Williamson is a Brooklyn-based reporter whose work has appeared in Brooklyn Eagle, Queens Eagle, Gothamist and elsewhere.

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  1. A recent report labelled Brooklyn as having an unusually high percentage to toxic land sites. I would not eat from a community garden unless I knew the soil for these community gardens has been tested for toxicity. Many of these garden were empty lots and dump sites for waste.

    1. If you look carefully you will see that Radical Living is using raised garden beds. Many community gardeners use raised beds (and “new” soil) to avoid the possibility of any contaminated soil.

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