Before Growing Roots was a brand, it was a mission. Unilever, Growing Roots’ parent company, has 3 audacious goals at the heart of its Sustainable Living Plan: improving health and well-being for more than one billion people, reducing environment impact by half, and enhancing livelihoods for millions. To take action against these goals in our own backyard, in 2015 Unilever looked across the river from its Englewood Cliffs, NJ, headquarters to our neighbors in NYC.

As luck would have it, the Mayor’s Office at that time was preparing to launch Building Healthy Communities (BHC), a city-wide partnership designed to improve health outcomes in 12 neighborhoods in New York City. Led by the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Partnerships and the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, BHC aims to improve opportunities for physical activity, expand access to healthy, affordable food, and promote public safety.

As part of BHC, the Mayoral initiative was looking for sponsors of an innovative new program called Farms at NYCHA . Following the model of a successful pilot farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, five new urban farms at public housing developments would be built in partnership with NYCHA, Green City Force and community partners. Public housing residents would build and maintain the farms on public housing properties across the city to serve fellow residents, with local partners.

Together we are Growing Roots

Unilever jumped at the chance to be involved in this program, since you can’t improve nutrition without first making sure everyone has access to healthy food – access that was sorely lacking in these neighborhoods.

AmeriCorps and Unilever painting garden fence

Take for instance, East Harlem – the setting for one of the proposed farms at Wagner Houses. East Harlem has fewer supermarkets and three times more fast food outlets per resident than the Upper East Side just blocks to the south. Not surprisingly, this comes with drastically higher rates of obesity and diabetes. Food access likely plays a major part; a survey Unilever conducted found that only 1 in 5 Wagner House residents eat more than one serving of vegetables each day.

Unilever and AmeriCorps Members

In 2016, Unilever signed on to be the anchor corporate partner of the Farms at NYCHA program, and the program began. After GCF Corps Members and NYCHA staff attended community meetings and gatherings at each development to get resident’s input on the location, size, and crops they would like to grow at the farms, construction began on 3 new farms, with 2 more added in 2018.

These farms are about far more than just vegetables: they expand healthy food access, provide youth workforce and leadership development, and promote sustainable and connected public housing communities.

  • Residents of the community can help grow and harvest vegetables, or bring their compostable waste to weekly farm stands in exchange for local-grown produce.
  • Green City Force, the lead NGO partner, is an AmeriCorps program that trains and employs young NYCHA residents in all manner of sustainability efforts, from energy conservation to building farms, giving them a ladder out of poverty into the green economy
    • In fact, over 90 GCF graduates have been placed into full time jobs!
Garden growing Kale

The Wagner Houses Farm site during construction.

The Wagner Houses Farm site during construction

This is where the story of the Growing Roots brand began. Tracy Shepard-Rashkin, the founder of Growing Roots, saw the transformational impact these farms had on their communities. She learned from Green City Force Corps Members and staff how urban agriculture could unlock so much more than just improved access to fresh food, but how it could actually be the center of a whole ecosystem of benefits, including nutrition, green spaces, sustainability, poverty and crime alleviation, community building, and furthering economic and racial equity. Inspired by the power of urban agriculture, Tracy wanted to ensure the sustainability of Unilever’s funding to the Farms at NYCHA program and create a way to expand donations beyond NYC to other organizations across the country. Thus, Growing Roots, and its commitment to donate 50% of profits, was born!