Essential Brooklyn is an 8-part series spotlighting the people and organizations working overtime to lift up their communities through the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the ones who give the most with the least resources. They’re our true essential workers, our community anchors; the ones who often go unnoticed, until you need them…. The ones who have been there for us all along. 

The midday sun covered every inch of the Green Valley Farm on the corner of New Lots Avenue in Brownsville.

It was almost 80 degrees, clear skies with a light breeze. A huge cherry tree stood in the middle of the garden, creating much needed shade. Underneath the tree sat Brenda Dushane, surrounded by seedlings and fresh cherries.

Close by, beets, zucchinis, collards, kale, grapes, herbs and a number of other fresh produce sprouted from planting boxes. On one side of the garden, a huge green house held spinach, lemon balm, Swiss chard and more. Toward the end of the garden, bees milled around four hives.

Brenda Dushane tends to the leafy greens in Green Valley Farm. Photo by Russell Frederick.

“Everybody needs something like this,” said Dushane, Green Valley Garden’s manager, as she relaxed in the shade. It’s not hard to see why: The second you step into the garden, outside stress takes a back seat.

Planting the foundation

Dushane started managing community gardens in the neighborhood more than 10 years ago as a qualified urban farmer, helping seniors with garden maintenance.

While researching the nutritional value of the the foods stocked at the neighborhood’s grocery stores, she found the food coming into Brownsville typically only had between zero and 10 percent of its nutrient value.

She tracked the food and learned that many of the produce arrived in poor condition, due to being picked too early, then sitting for weeks in refrigeration in transit, before arriving on the shelves in wealthier neighborhoods. What was not used then made its way to her underserved area of Brooklyn.

“We did a farmers market, and everybody absolutely loved it. Because, you know, the farmers don’t come no further than Grand Army Plaza.”

So Dushane made it her mission to increase access to healthy foods for folks in Brownsville– a neighborhood with only one new dine-in restaurant in 50 years.

“We started growing [it] and giving it away, and the community kept asking for more,” she said. “We did a farmers market, and everybody absolutely loved it. Because, you know, the farmers don’t come no further than Grand Army Plaza.”

Growing the gardens

Dushane saw how she could grow the effort, and with that, increase the accessibility of fresh, healthy food in the community and started the educational nonprofit Isabahlia Ladies of Elegance Foundation.

The foundation manages five community gardens in the neighborhood, and Dushane trains and mentors women in the community to run their own gardens. At the gardens, Dushane and other mentors hold community programing, including workshops in plant growing, gardening, diet, health, arts, and crafts and more for folks of all ages. She said the aim of the foundation was to strengthen the community through education, raising awareness and encouraging positive self-esteem in children and adults.

Princess Conneitt picks fresh cherries from the tree at the Brownsville farm. Photo by Russell Frederick.

She said when folks from the community came into the gardens they were always taken aback by how much was there. One garden had chickens; another had bees. Many had fruit trees, including figs, peaches, pears, apples and plums. All had bountiful amounts of vegetables.

“We started with one farmers market, and we’re up to three markets now we grow,” she said. “And the neighborhood has fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, with 100 percent nutrient value.”

Dushane is a master composter and worm farmer, so no chemicals are added to the soil.

Providing through pandemic

Much of the foundation’s regular programing had to be canceled with the COVID-19 pandemic. But knowing residents would be even more in need of healthy options, Dushane and her staff partnered with the Brownsville Community Culinary Center (BCCC) providing fresh ingredients for BCCC’s free meals program for Brownsville residents.

With a grant, the organization was able to hire community members to work in the garden. And the food the foundation wasn’t giving to the BCCC, it was donating to residents discounted or for free.

“The reason why the residents of a lot of low-income neighborhoods are getting sicker than other residents is their immune system,” said Dushane. She bemoaned the fact another fast food restaurant (Taco Bell) was being built on Pitkin Avenue and said it was unfair the community wasn’t consulted on the decision.

“They say that’s what we like, but that’s a lie. It’s what’s available,” she said. “On 69 Belmont Ave., they have a culinary academy and people love sitting down; they love it. If you bring it, we will frequent it. But you’re not bringing it.

“Why don’t we deserve another sit down restaurant in our community?”

Fresh loving

One of the most popular programs the foundation runs, which has been put on hold this year, was the summer program for kids, said Dushane. In the program, kids learn about farming, healthcare and the science of food and are tasked with making their own lunch each day from what is inside the garden.

It’s a family affair at Princess Cronneitt’s garden, with her three children often tending to the plants. Photo by Russell Frederick.

Dushane said parents often thought their children wouldn’t eat the fresh food. But that was hardly ever the case: “We influence them,” Dushane said, “If we say they’re not going to like it, they’re not going to like it. But when they’re here, they want to do everything.”

“Now some of the parents are saying we’ve created a monster, because the kids go home and say, ‘Ms. Brenda said we shouldn’t fry; we should bake.’ And, ‘No salt, we need to buy more herbs,’” Dushane laughed.

Growing to heal

The fact the gardens are a safe place for seniors, kids, and everyone in between has been recognized by many in the community and beyond. An architecture school offered to build a pavilion at the biggest garden, and a private company was offering to power the greenhouse, so the team could grow throughout the year, said Dushane.

That afternoon, the foundation had just received a large donation of root vegetables to add to donation boxes with all the fresh veggies they’d harvested. Princess Cronneitt, who is mentored by Dushane, had all the boxes at her own corner garden, just a block over from Green Valley Farm.

Cronniett said her section– lush with apple, peach and plum trees, a myriad of variations of tomatoes, herbs and vegetables and much more– was testimony to Dushane’s training and the fact she believed in her.

“Very seldom do we have people like her that are saying you can do it; you can be something. Here’s how you get healthy; here’s how you take care of yourself. That’s what she does,” Cronniett said.

As Cronniett walked through her garden, she picked leaves from different herbs and vegetables describing their nutritional and healing qualities and how different variations of species treated different ailments. Her wealth of knowledge and passion for fresh food was contagious, and she said it came from her constant studying of all topics food- and farming-related.

Passing the knowledge

Cronniett holds workshops and educational classes for youth, teaching them all about farming and healthy eating. She said in Brownsville, it was rare to find a household that wasn’t battling health issues that could be addressed by eating the right foods.

Brenda Dushane mentors women in the community to run other community gardens in the neighborhood. Photo by Russell Frederick.

“If you’re not knowledgeable about it, then you don’t understand why you’re not healthy,” she said. “If it doesn’t have the adequate nutrient value, you may as well be eating fast food. And we have that every other block, so we have to teach our families to become chefs.”

Cronniett, who is currently growing 25 types of tomatoes and researching their different nutrient values, has passed on her passion for farming to her three children. One was becoming a bee ambassador, and another has taken fascination in edible weeds. And all three help her at the garden. She said she keeps up her learning to be an educator to them, and other youth in the community.

Fruitful endeavor

Brenda Dushane runs Isabahlia Ladies of Elegance with the goal of bringing fresh food to Brownsville. Photo by Russell Frederick.

As Dushane poured freshly grown ginger tea from a thermos, she said she was extremely proud of what she and her team had achieved and were setting up for the future:

“It makes my heart full,” she said. “I accomplished a dream and a promise I made to the community that we were going to make sure we had fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I sit here when I finish watering. I just sit here and enjoy my garden.”

*Cover photo by Russell Frederick

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Anna Bradley-Smith

Anna Bradley-Smith is Brooklyn-based reporter with bylines in NBC, VICE, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @annabradsmith.

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