Solomon Page Proudly Supports GrowNYC

April 22, 2024

Filed Under: Volunteering, SP Cares

By Erica Schaumberg

The Solomon Page SP Cares April fundraiser supports GrowNYC, an environmental nonprofit that has become a sustainability and community leader in New York City and beyond since its founding in 1970. In addition to fundraising efforts, Solomon Page had the opportunity to interview Marcel Van Ooyen, CEO of GrowNYC, to learn more about the organization’s mission and raise awareness for environmental and food insecurity concerns that not only impact New York City but are amplified nationwide.  

Roots of Success 

Originating as a policy-based organization, GrowNYC was created from the ethos of the first Earth Day as the Council on the Environment of New York City. The organization wrote comprehensive reports about issues such as air quality, traffic, and noise pollution. Marcel elaborated on the history of GrowNYC, “Within a few years we were establishing Greenmarkets and building gardens. ​Later, we took action on waste reduction, providing environmental education and fresh local food for all.” Today, the non-profit organization touches the lives of 3 million New Yorkers every year, empowering communities across the city to “enact their vision of a thriving community.” Initiatives include ensuring food access across the city, building community and school gardens, educating the young and elders about how to be environmental stewards, and generating opportunities to reduce waste and care for the environment. 

Defining the Problem 

Amidst the layers of concrete, glass, and steel that define New York City, the presence of nature often seems confined to small pockets. Nevertheless, embracing a sustainable lifestyle is critical. “At GrowNYC–sustainability means fostering a New York City that is greener and more equitable for everyone – for generations to come,” said Marcel. This includes creating more public green spaces, ensuring access to locally grown nutritious foods, and implementing environmentally friendly practices like citywide composting. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle are guiding principles that can further enhance the city’s sustainability. 

Balancing the historical legacy of New York City, which was not originally designed to accommodate modern environmental concerns, high population growth, or easy access to food, presents a significant challenge when envisioning a greener city. The socioeconomic challenges impacting the city extend to environmental concerns, Marcel elaborated by saying, “Historically underserved and frontline communities are facing the brunt of poor city planning, lack of green space, a food system effectively redlining low-income communities from receiving nutritious food options, and the damaging environmental effects of climate change.” More than a third of adults in New York City live in a household at risk for food insecurity, according to a 2021 survey by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Food insecurity is defined as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate food to meet one’s basic needs. Food insecurity and the lack of access to healthy fruits and vegetables are pervasive issues across the nation. New York City serves as a microcosm of this widespread issue, with the highest percentage of adults who experience food insecurity within the five boroughs residing in the Bronx, where 39% of adults are impacted. This is where GrowNYC supports diverse communities across the city to live a healthier and sustainable lifestyle.  

Getting Involved 

Developing educational programming for learners of all ages is essential to promoting sustainability and deepening understanding of environmental practices. The process begins with New Yorkers taking proactive roles as environmental advocates against climate change. Imagining a New York City where everyone has equal access to the opportunities and resources necessary to lead a greener, more sustainable life is crucial as climate action is ongoing. Highlighting GrowNYC’s educational programming, Marcel described how the organization engages with tens of thousands of children and adults throughout the five boroughs through free educational workshops covering a range of topics such as recycling, composting, climate, and gardening. Marcel highlighted that GrowNYC is actively involved in local schools, community and senior centers, group tours, and virtual workshops. He emphasized, “Through this hands-on approach, GrowNYC is empowering New Yorkers of all ages to be the next generation of climate leaders and environmental stewards. With an eye toward environmental justice, our programs intentionally cover the interconnectivity between health, environment, and food justice.” GrowNYC’s efforts are not only deepening understanding of environmental concerns but also nurturing a sense of responsibility among diverse communities, paving the way for a more sustainable and equitable future.  

A familiar point of contact for many New Yorkers with GrowNYC is likely the Union Square Greenmarket. The Union Square Greenmarket and markets just like it across the city have been bringing fresh and seasonal food to city dwellers since 1976 with over 240 partnerships with regional farmers and producers. GrowNYC Greenmarkets provide fresh, local food while also creating a revenue stream for family farms and businesses in rural communities across the Northeast. Marcel elaborated on the partnership between producers and business owners, stating, “We also provide aspiring farm business owners and established GrowNYC Greenmarket producers with business technical assistance and training. Our goal is to ensure the long-term viability of participating farm businesses and preserved farmland in NYC’s foodshed.” He also highlighted the broader economic impact of a GrowNYC Greenmarket, adding, “Every $1 of sales generated at a Greenmarket result in $.61 of economic activity in the rural economy where that farmer is based. The total estimated contributions of Greenmarkets and its producers are estimated at upwards of $500 million a year.” Through these initiatives, GrowNYC's Union Square Greenmarket and its counterparts not only support local economies but also build a more sustainable and connected food system, benefiting both urban consumers and rural producers. 

While ingrained in the New York City experience, outdoor markets also serve as a reminder of the inequitable access to food across the city. To address food access disparities, GrowNYC Greenmarket and GrowNYC Farmstand locations accept nutrition assistance programs like SNAP, WIC, FMNP, Health Bucks, and select OTC Medicare plans. Marcel explained, “Our SNAP incentive provides a 1:1 to match up to $10 per day, increasing the buying power of families with already stretched food budgets. We’re proud to say we process and redeem $4.3 million of nutrition benefits annually across 66 GrowNYC market sites.” GrowNYC was the nation’s first farmers market network to accept SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, and collaborated with New York City officials on pioneering initiatives such as Health Bucks to incentivize shoppers using SNAP to purchase local food and a central terminal system that has since been adopted nationwide. By accepting, improving, and supporting these programs, GrowNYC aims to make healthy, locally-grown food a reality for all New Yorkers, regardless of their economic circumstances. Marcel continued, “In addition to running our markets, GrowNYC has partnered with over 360 organizations across the five boroughs, distributing over 2.6 million pounds of fresh produce to food-insecure communities in 2023. Our partners include nonprofits, senior centers, schools, soup kitchens, mission-aligned food retailers, restaurants, and our 16 GrowNYC Farmstands.” Through these partnerships and initiatives, GrowNYC is actively working to narrow the gap in food access and promote food security throughout the city. This not only nurtures a better understanding of environmental concerns but also acknowledges that access to fresh and nutritious food enhances the overall well-being of New Yorkers and surrounding communities.  

Beyond the Big Apple 

Given the widespread impact of global warming, New York City offers an urban perspective on nationwide environmental concerns. The success of GrowNYC Greenmarkets in the region has been studied and replicated in other major cities across America. Similarly, GrowNYC’s Food Scrap Drop-off sites (FSDOs) have inspired similar models nationwide. Diverting millions of pounds of food scraps from landfills each year, Marcel described GrowNYC’s process, “We haul organic waste collections to partner processing facilities in NYC that create compost used in local gardens, parks, and tree wells citywide. We organize compost givebacks to provide residents with finished compost they helped produce creating a closed loop cycle for organic waste.” Due to the success of this program and other community composting programs, New York City is launching a citywide curbside composting initiative. This largest-in-the-nation program will provide essential resources to residents while encouraging sustainable living practices. 

Striving to establish a greener city, we must also consider what steps each of us can take personally to live a more sustainable lifestyle. It all begins with small changes. These minor adjustments accumulate into a healthier and more sustainable life for generations to come. Marcel suggested several ways for individuals to engage, such as volunteering or donating to environmental non-profits like GrowNYC, learning how to properly store produce, composting your food scraps, joining a community garden, practicing reducing, reusing, and recycling, and continuing to spread the message. 

Looking ahead, GrowNYC remains committed to assisting small and mid-sized farms and producers in the region thrive, while advancing food access across New York City. Opening in 2024, Marcel stated that, “GrowNYC’s New York State Regional Food Hub will radically transform our city’s food pathways by connecting small farmers to city communities, expand our food access network, and create critical infrastructure for an alternative New York City food system that keeps regional agriculture thriving and gets fresh, local food into underserved communities.” This ambitious initiative embodies GrowNYC’s dedication to sustainability, community, empowerment, and a healthier future for all New Yorkers. With a legacy of environmental leadership since the 1970’s, GrowNYC is bound to continue forming greener, more equitable programs that benefit all New Yorkers while also supporting neighboring communities in the area. 

Solomon Page would like to thank GrowNYC for contributing to this article. We are honored to share the voices of GrowNYC, and other organizations within our community, through our SP Cares initiative. Looking to get involved with GrowNYC? Follow the organization on Instagram, Facebook, and check out the GrowNYC website to learn more. 

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