Sometimes an idea comes along when the zeitgeist is just right, and the pieces fall into place seemingly seamlessly. Meet Hannah Bronfman and Leigh Ofer, co-founders of the fledgling organization Seed Street, which repurposes freight containers into hydroponic farms (a method of growing without soil) and uses them to transform low-income neighborhoods in food deserts into communities with access to local, fresh, nutritious foods.
Bronfman is an entrepreneur, restaurant investor and founder of HBFit, an online health, fitness and beauty destination. Ofer is uniquely qualified for this venture having grown up around her family’s Israel-based shipping business and with a background in business, international relations and sustainability. The two bonded over their passion and desire for food justice, and so Seed Street was born.
A friend of Bronfman’s had freight containers available, and the project came together as a volunteer-run nonprofit with a head farmer who has deep community ties to Harlem and acts as the program director. Seed Street’s pilot program launched the summer of 2015, just a few months after the idea’s initial conception, and is housed at the Children’s Aid Society in East Harlem. Three modules, each with 10 to 12 middle school students, currently engage in a year-round curriculum with a winter break during December and January.
This multifaceted project brings together urban farming and art to engage the community, raise consciousness about the environment and fill derelict areas with beauty. One example of this is a mural created with local graffiti personality Billy the Artist as a means of engaging the surrounding neighborhood with the freight-containers-turned-hydroponic-farms. Ofer describes the interaction of residents as “people coming to life.”
Other elements of the pilot program include movement and physical activity workshops, such as yoga to increase self-esteem and body mindfulness. The staff is currently developing a broader curriculum focused on planting, conscious movement and entrepreneurship to further education about food and farming and to give the students an opportunity to continue to be creative and stretch their ideas as far as possible.
Ofer and Bronfman believe this could prove to be a profitable business model if they’re eventually able to sell the produce. Presently, the goal is to continue as a nonprofit organization with an eye towards eventually adding a business side, but always aspiring to change lives first and foremost.
Visit the Seed Street website, and you’re greeted with the Hippocrates quotation, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This rings true for so many of us in today’s foodie world as we wrestle to understand how something as basic as daily sustenance correlates with not only wellbeing, but also justice and the state of our planet. Seed Street is using food as a tool for transformative community change in East Harlem—though their ambitions are already sprouting into thoughts of expanding to additional cities and creating what Ofer describes as a “food justice empire” to combat poor health and conflicts.
And it doesn’t stop there! Ofer cites her grandfather Sammy’s deep love and commitment to the state of Israel as her personal inspiration. Having lived there from age 11 until after the army, Ofer has strong ties, and her dream is to someday take this model and engage Israelis and Palestinians “to bridge the two sides through a shared goal of growing something with two hands.”
Top photo: Seed Street’s pilot container in East Harlem.
All photos by Nick Smith.