UHF is proud to present the 2021 Distinguished Community Service Award to Karen Washington, in recognition of her exemplary work as a champion of food sustainability for over 30 years and as a community organizer for food justice.

Travel around the Bronx and you will discover an unexpected side of the borough—hundreds of community gardens. Much of the credit for this green transformation goes to “the godmother of urban farming,” Karen Washington, a community organizer who has long championed food justice and food sustainability.

For more than 30 years, Karen has worked to make her home borough healthier by fighting what she calls “food apartheid,” her term for the inequity in our food system on the basis of race, class, and geography. While working as a physical therapist at Montefiore Medical Center she realized that many of her patients’ chronic illnesses were exacerbated by a lack of healthy food options in local stores. So she went to work, pushing for community gardens, urban farms, farmer’s markets, food equity organizations, and—in partnership with The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG)—innovative programs to help families and educators grow and prepare healthy food.

Karen’s interest in urban farming began in 1985, when she moved to the Tremont section of the Bronx and started growing vegetables in her backyard—her first foray into gardening. “It was the tomatoes that changed my world,” she says. “I hated them growing up; they were pale and tasteless. But I’d never tasted anything so sweet and delicious as my own tomatoes!” Three years later, she and a neighbor decided to turn a trash-strewn lot across the street into a garden and tackled it with shovels. The next day, a green truck pulled up and a team jumped out, asking if they could help. 

They were from NYBG’s newly formed Bronx Green-Up community gardening program, created to help residents transform empty lots. Thus was born the Garden of Happiness, now a 36-plot community garden (also chickens and a bee apiary) that started Karen on a crusade to create a healthier, greener Bronx. It was also the beginning of her partnership with NYBG, where she has been a trustee since 2009.

Today Bronx Green-Up serves more than 200 community and school gardens. “Karen has always been there, helping us to create more gardens and farms and find more resources,” says Ursula Chanse, NYBG’s director of Bronx Green-Up and Community Horticulture. “She’s advocated continuously to create a more livable, healthy, and socially just Bronx.” 

In 1998, Karen created La Familia Verde, a coalition of five community gardens in the East Tremont section of the borough, formed to sustain the environment and culture of Bronx neighborhoods through education, community service, and horticulture. And in 2004, she started the first farmer’s market in the Bronx, so local gardeners could sell their produce.

Karen is particularly concerned about the health of children—the Bronx has some of the highest rates of diabetes and childhood obesity in the nation, and a dearth of grocery stores. So she lent her expertise to help NYBG open the Edible Academy in 2018, a state-of-the-art educational facility that helps children, families, teachers, and the public learn about growing and preparing vegetables and fruit. Its goal—encourage a lifelong interest in gardening, nutrition, and environmental stewardship. 

“We are continually learning from Karen how best to engage and communicate with the students who come to Edible Academy,” says Todd Forrest, Arthur Ross Vice President for Horticulture and Living Collections at NYBG. “We would not have created it without everything we’ve learned from Karen.”

Karen’s community work extends far beyond NYBG. She has been president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, a board member of the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, and a co-founder of Black Urban Growers, Farm School New York City, and City Farms Market. In 2012, Ebony named her one of the 100 most influential African Americans in the United States; in 2014, she was presented with the James Beard Leadership Award; and in 2020, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., declared October 17 “Food Justice Day” in her honor.

She’s not done yet. After retiring from Montefiore in 2014, Karen and three other women started Rise & Root Farm, a five-acre cooperative in Orange County, New York, dedicated to social justice. Rise & Root uses “the healing power of food and farming to build a more equitable food system,” Karen says. The Farm invites people to participate in a variety of events and find a welcoming agricultural space, with special emphasis on including Black and Indigenous people, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. 

United Hospital Fund is proud to honor Karen Washington with its 2021 Distinguished Community Service Award in recognition of her exemplary work as a champion of food sustainability for over 30 years and community organizer for food justice.