She’s known as the queen for urban farming — the woman who started growing food in vacant lots long before it became fashionable. But, 30 years ago, Karen Washington was a single mom with two kids who had just bought a home in the Bronx. In her work as a physical therapist, she noticed her patients suffering the effects of nutrient-poor diets. Her own son was starting to suffer, too. And so, she taught herself how to garden by reading library books. Then, a neighbor began clearing trash from a lot across the street and together they created a community garden they called the Garden of Happiness. That was just the beginning for Washington.
Through a partnership with the New York Botanical Garden’s Green-Up program, Washington has been doing grassroots work mentoring a generation of urban gardeners who have turned vacant lots all over the city into community gardens where people grow their own fresh, healthy food. She also co-founded Black Urban Growers (BUGS) and most recently the cooperative Rise & Root Farm.
Washington’s efforts have won her a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award and in 2012 she was named one of Ebony’s 100 Most Influential African Americans. But for her, the rewards are the deliciousness of home grown food and the rewards of social justice. “To grow your own food gives you power and dignity,” she says. “You know exactly what you’re eating because you grew it. It’s good, it’s nourishing and you did this for yourself, your family, and your community.”