By Sara Ivry
Park Slope Food Coop members Bruce Zeines and Sheryll Durrant spend a lot of their time thinking about food. How to grow it. How to distribute it equitably. How to make it a more integral and healthy part of the lives of people in their community—their neighbors in the Longwood section of the South Bronx, in one of the country’s poorest Congressional districts.
They are relative newcomers to the area. Zeines and Durrant moved there from Brooklyn in 2016 to take up quarters in what was a superintendent’s apartment. Their new home was in the basement of a building that’s one of four enclosing a thriving oasis of green. The 8500-square-foot patch of Eden is known as the Kelly Street Garden, is where they now spend their days.
Indeed, Kelly Street is what brought them to the Bronx in the first place, to take up positions as its general manager (Zeines) and resident garden manager (Durrant).
It’s not always about dollars, it’s about creating something that makes people feel good.
“We were looking for something with meaning,” Zeines explains on the phone, birds chirping in the background. Until they moved, Zeines made a living as an art director and Durrant worked in marketing for everything from casinos to a housewares company to a university.
All the while, they were committed members of the Park Slope Food Coop, availing themselves of fresh produce and reasonable prices while nurturing an awareness of larger issues such as food distribution networks and food justice.
Being a PSFC member “dovetailed with me getting interested in eating healthy,” Durrant says. “Understanding that The Coop was intentional about relationships with farmers. It was this whole gestalt about how The Coop’s food is related to the well being of the farmers who grow the food.”
It was not the first time she’d thought about how food grows.
“Both sides of my family are steeped in agriculture,” says Durrant, who hails from Jamaica. “We had a large yard. We grew fruit trees. We grew food.”
In her home country, as in many places, a life in farming is associated with financial insecurity. Given that, Durrant’s goal was “to move to the city, to go into a career where there is financial well being.”
Ergo the casinos. Yet even while that was going on, Durrant embarked on a return to her roots; she volunteered in local community gardens in Ditmas Park and elsewhere. Two years after the 2008 financial crash, she took a retirement package and dove into volunteering full time, networking and learning from other urban gardeners. In 2014, she attended Farm School NYC, an urban agriculture training institution that holds classes across city gardens, farms, and class spaces. Now a leader in the field, she has developed community-based projects, mentored others in how to run community gardens, become a master composter, and designed and led workshops related to food justice and food insecurity.
In addition to her work at Kelly Street, Durrant also serves as the Food and Nutrition Coordinator for New Roots Community Farm, a robust half-acre site in the Bronx managed by the International Rescue Committee.
But back in 2016, when the couple first arrived at Kelly Street, the garden was something of a mess. “It was disorganized,” Zeines says. “We had to run it the way you run a business. We had to have a small staff. We had to pay small stipends.”
To do so, they applied for grants and other sources of fundraising to pull together some $5,000. They started public programming in the garden, offering Qi Gong classes, instruction on herbal medicine, drumming, Congolese dancing, and print and other art making. Along with garden staff and volunteers, they grew and dried herbs to supply a community apothecary. They began the community food education program, where local chefs come in for food demonstrations using garden produce. And they grew vegetables, fruit, legumes, and plants of all kinds.
The collective aim of these garden-building programs is, Zeines says, to provide a source of “joy coming from a space, from the fact that you’re around things that are growing.”
The garden for me has been soul birthing. We assume we have a soul, but I think we have to grow one.
“Community gardens are good for communities, but it’s not something developers have a shared opinion about,” he continues. “It’s not always about dollars, it’s about creating something that makes people feel good…. It’s a known fact that working in the soil, working around things that are alive is very good for the spirit. It’s therapeutic, soil therapy.”
Durrant agrees. “Working outside is the best thing you can ever do. It’s very liberating. And it also opens your eyes about the deep food insecurity that exists in America.”
“Everybody needs to know where their food comes from, how it’s grown, and also to have care for the people who serve you your food when you eat in a restaurant and who grows it,” she continues. ”What surprises me is how little value we put on something that is integral to our well being. America’s food system is trash, highly profit oriented, too much sugar, too much filler, and the emphasis on clean, healthy food—it’s made to seem unattainable and that only a certain level of people can afford it. Everyone should have access to healthy food.”
To that end, the garden, whose operating budget is now about $140,000 a year, runs a free farmers market on Fridays from April through October where volunteers and staff provide fresh food to some 400 households a week. Kelly Street supplies the market’s produce along with New Roots and upstate farmers, some of whom, like Hepworth, are also Food Coop suppliers.
More generally, the existence of community gardens signal, Durrant says, a neighborhood’s response to calamity of some sort—crises of addiction, incarceration, or gun violence for example.
“In the Bronx, a lot of the community gardens grew out of the Decade of Fire,” which left abandoned and vacant lots in its wake, she says. “Community gardens are from members who stayed in and decided they’d reclaim their space. It is in response to trauma, so people can have respite.”
Kelly Street Garden, like others of its kind, strengthens ties among community members who work together for food security, sharing the fruits of their labor with one another and with others, no questions asked. Working in them, Zeines points out, offers a way to learn about oneself.
“This garden is led by women of color. This is a community of color and here I am, a white Jewish guy, and I had to confront myself in a lot of ways,” he says, explaining that in spite of his or anyone’s best efforts to be open minded and compassionate to one another, we all harbor latent prejudices and we all have ego.
“The garden for me has been soul birthing. We assume we have a soul, but I think we have to grow one.”
Sara Ivry is a long-time member of the Park Slope Food Coop. She’s delighted stone fruit season is finally upon us again and already grieving the end of summer.