20 Dec
  • By Aizhana Danabekova

Healthy habits start young!

This is Tony Hillery. He is a founder of Harlem Grown. In 2011, Tony decided to be a volunteer at a public elementary school in Harlem (the district in New York City). When he was volunteering, he witnessed that most of the children in the area lived in poor conditions, they lacked healthy and fresh food. But what was shocking to Hillery is to find that many children couldn’t correctly identify vegetables. Soon, he transformed an overrun community garden, mostly with full of trash, into a thriving community garden where children do all the planting. In the garden’s first year he was able to grow 200 pounds of produce with the help of 400 schoolchildren. Today, the project has grown into a full organization that has inspired great change in Tony and the community’s lives.

“Healthy habits start young, which is why our programs target elementary-aged students. Because food justice is more than just providing and distributing food, our model seeks to positively impact the entire community through mentorship, job training, and partnerships to create sustainable change,” Tony says.

Photo by Adrian Fussell / The Riverdale Press -- Riverdale resident Tony Hillery, working in the Harlem Grown urban farm greenhouse on 134th Street during a visit on Nov. 12.

Can you tell us about yourself, your family and your previous job?

I was born in Germany, and I came to the U.S. at one year old. I grew up in a typical family with eight children. My father worked, and mother stayed at home. Everything was good. I knew some people who didn’t have a lot, but I didn’t know what poverty was. I was a businessman, and I made money that’s what businessmen do. I had a limousine company, and I drove movie stars for almost 18 years. I’ve made a lot of money. So that, my children (two daughters and one son) studied at private school from kindergarten to university. In 2011 the financial crisis hit my business hard. One day I was sitting in my apartment, and I was reading an article about schools in Harlem in Brooklyn. Honestly, I didn’t understand what I was reading; I always thought all schools were the same. So, I wanted to see for myself at school, and I started my volunteering job in Harlem.

How did you decide to found Harlem Grown?

When I was volunteering in Harlem, I noticed so many children were living in poor condition. 80% of the children lived in a single-parent house only with their mother, 92% lived below poverty, and over 40% of the children didn’t have their home, and 98% of the children were on food stamps of the government subsidies. In addition to everything else, the children didn’t know what healthy food was because in the area there were more than 50 fast food stores in three block radiuses. When I talked to the children, they didn’t know what healthy food was or from where tomatoes came. They thought that all food came from the supermarket. So, their problems – lack of access, lack of opportunity not just with food, but in life generally, started to focus on me. And there was a piece of property across the street like a garden. So, I just started cleaning it, and I bought seedlings that children could plant their seedling, and that was the start of Harlem Grown.


How many children are in your foundation?

There were 400 kids seven years ago, and today there are 4200. And we are currently in six elementary schools in Harlem. And we have 1000 volunteers who are college students and people working for Google and other big corporations.

How did you encourage children to join Harlem Grown?

We are working seven days a week. So, the children can see us every day, in school, after school, and on the weekends. When the children came for the first time, we showed them the garden; then they started to ask questions “what’s this” or “what’s that.” Today we went from answering these questions, and to whatever we pick up and we say “check this out, taste this,” kids will put it right in their mouth without questions and no apprehension at all. And if they do it, their friends do it too. We have created a whole ring of trust with our children. And it is like the ripple effect, and they bring their brothers and sisters, they bring their parents, they bring their friends.

Do you have a plan to expand Harlem Grown throughout the U.S or other countries?

Maybe. But to be honest, that’s not my decision because at the end of the day I try to get children to go to college. What I am trying to do is to show them by bringing in students from college and successful people to develop conversations and give them access to the world.

What can you suggest for everyone and “Ripplezoo” readers to solve the world’s most pressing problems?

We have to stop complaining about everything. And we have to do something to fix it. It is simple. We, humans, complain a lot when we see the problem but what we can do to solve. That’s the question we have to ask ourselves.