On July 16, ten senior recipients of AAFE’s East Harlem food pantry embarked on a gleaning trip to two farms, Dig Acres and Choy Division, in upstate New York. Gleaning involves the process of harvesting excess food from farm fields. After the one-and-a-half-hour trip on the bus together, the seniors and AAFE’s Community Services team met with the founders of Choy Commons, an AAPI coalition of farmers seeking to build reciprocal relationships and increase Asian food access in the New York region. The vision behind this excursion and collaboration centers on building a sustainable local food network for East Harlem seniors.
The farm trip began with introductions from everyone and stretching exercises. The seniors then went on an interactive tour of the farms while smelling fresh Asian vegetables, making cauliflower boutonnieres, and enjoying the warm sun.
For lunch, the seniors and the AAFE team snacked on some Chinese bakery buns and chatted before it was time to glean. The seniors then went out to the farms and picked many boxes of onions, spring onions, and cauliflower to be taken home. While gleaning, some seniors with farming experience shared their stories and tips with the farmers on how to best grow Asian vegetables.
At the end of the farm day, the seniors said their goodbyes and expressed their gratitude to the Choy Commons team. Then, headed back to East Harlem with their freshly harvested vegetables. AAFE staff also brought extra boxes of vegetables back to be distributed by Marcus Meets Malcolm, a Harlem-based nonprofit.
After the trip, we heard from a few seniors about how meaningful this excursion was for them. One senior, Ms. Hui, explained in Chinese, “Thank you for taking us to the farm! It took old folks like us back to our childhood. Everyone was so excited to pick vegetables in the field. Please thank the farmers for their warm hospitality for us. You are all great!”
Another senior, Ms. Liu, also said in Chinese “Thank you for arranging this very interesting vegetable picking activity for us. I haven’t been this relaxed and happy for a long time. I even got to experience the feeling of farm work and the joy of harvesting. It’s great. I also want to thank AAFE and the beautiful and handsome farmers for their warm hospitality and guidance. Everyone had a happy and productive weekend. Thank you.”
This gleaning trip represents one of AAFE’s initiatives to address food accessibility for Asians in East Harlem. For context, since the last U.S. Census, from 2010 to 2020, the Asian population in East Harlem has increased by 200%. A year ago, Upper Manhattan Asian American Alliance invited AAFE to engage with the growing population of Asian seniors in East Harlem.
Emily Rios, AAFE’s managing director of Community Services, explained why food scarcity is one of the biggest issues for the East Harlem community. Emily said, “It was a universal experience during the pandemic at pantries across the city that there wasn’t enough culturally appropriate food and that was the case, as well, in East Harlem. But, what made it even more difficult in East Harlem compared with other neighborhoods was that there were no stores selling produce familiar to the Asian community, so folks needed to travel to other neighborhoods. The inaccessibility of culturally appropriate food was compounded by COVID and an uptick in public safety concerns, particularly for the seniors who were afraid to use public transportation.”
To address food access in East Harlem, AAFE first started a small food pantry that serves 150 households once a month. Now, the partnership with Choy Commons is exploring a regular gleaning program connecting East Harlem seniors to upstate farms growing Asian vegetables.
As background for gleaning, farmers strategically plant crops depending on their pre-orders. However, even after fulfilling their orders, farms may have excess food. Gleaning is the practice of collecting excess produce from farm fields to share with those in need.
Nicole Yeo, co-founder and organizer of Choy Commons, explained why this gleaning trip not only served as a way to address food access, but also represented a regenerative and nourishing space for intergenerational dialogue for them, the East Harlem seniors, AAFE staff, and youth volunteers. She said “It felt really meaningful that our relationships with land, farming, and plants resonated with the elders as they seemed to already understand how to be with plants and the joy found through farming. I think it was everything and more than we hoped it would be.”
The AAFE Community Services staff has planned another gleaning trip with Choy Commons in September and is excited to harvest more fresh vegetables with East Harlem seniors. In the long term, the goal is to find a sustainable solution to address food scarcity and create awareness of the need for culturally appropriate food sources. If this experience is of interest to you and/or you would like to offer resources, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org