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Johanna E. Willins, 2010 Garden Crusader

Johanna E. Willins, 2010 Garden Crusader

Johanna E. Willins (right), 2010 Garden Crusader

East New York is one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and has one of the highest crime rates. Over a third of the residents live below the poverty line and just half of its students graduate from high school.

However, thanks to Johanna E. Willins, East New York is also home to a vibrant urban agriculture movement.

More than a decade ago, Johanna started growing herbs and vegetables in an abandoned lot in her neighborhood. Since then, she has helped establish a local farmer's market, helped start an organization dedicated to building the local food system and created an internship program for young people.

Johanna E. Willins

Johanna in one of her trademark newspaper hats.

Johanna has accomplished all of this through passion, hard work and an outsized personality. Sarita Daftary of East New York Farms, the nonprofit that grew out of Johanna's work, has this to say about Johanna: "She has inexhaustible energy… and a myriad of newspaper hats, designed and worn by her, which have become her trademark. Her infectious smile and warm persona make any encounter with her a memorable experience."

To honor Johanna E. Willins for her indefatigable work to expand gardening in a needy neighborhood, Gardener's Supply has named her a 2010 Garden Crusader winner.

The Market

Johanna has lived in Brooklyn her entire life and until 15 years ago, she had never gardened. An abandoned lot down the street from her apartment inspired her to start growing vegetables and herbs, and soon a little business, the Herbal Garden was born. In 1998, Johanna was the first vendor at a new farmer's market located under an elevated subway line on the corner of Barbery Street and New Lots Avenue. She set up a stall and sold herbs and vegetables by herself, but was soon joined by other local gardeners who came to sell their produce.

A decade later, the bustling market boasts dozens of craft and food vendors, including 25 East New York gardens and three upstate farms. About 600 people come to shop on an average Saturday.

There are very few supermarkets in East New York and many local residents have virtually no access to fresh, affordable produce. The farmer's market serves a vital need in the neighborhood. Three quarters of the purchases at the market are made using the federal Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, which provides coupons to senior citizens and families enrolled in the WIC program.

Produce displays at the East New York farmer's market often look a bit different from those at a typical farmer's market. Many of the vendors live right in the area and their "stalls" may be offering green beans and tomatoes from a community garden plot and apples from a neighbor's backyard. The market has given many residents the opportunity to start businesses selling their extra produce.

For Johanna, the market is about much more than selling produce. It's also bringing a wealth of knowledge about cooking and gardening to the neighborhood. She sells cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, onions, garlic, kale, chard, and dozens of herbs, and also teaches her customers how to cook healthy, tasty meals using this fresh produce. Though Johanna occasionally holds classes, she brings her message to everyone she talks to.

"I try to explain to the young women with children how to use the herbs instead of salt," she says. "It's more healthful. And when you're making a salad, you don't want just cucumbers and lettuce. Add some Swiss chard, two or three different kinds of tomatoes, onions, maybe peppers. It makes your salad more interesting."

Including the Youth

In addition to starting up the farmer's market, Johanna was also a founding member of the East New York Farms! Project.

In 11 years, this project has expanded from one tiny market, into a vibrant community resource with an internship program for teens and young adults, a network of over a dozen gardens, a new urban farm and a two bustling farmer's markets.

The internship program runs from March through November and engages two dozen young people from East New York. The interns are involved in all aspects of running a half acre farm. They are mentored by local gardeners like Johanna, and in exchange, are the farm's labor force for planting, weeding and harvesting.

Through her commitment and hard work, Johanna is helping feed her neighbors and grow a new generation of community leaders. She is demonstrating the vital role that agriculture can play in the modern city.

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