Let Them Eat Kale: Corbin Hill Farm

Unlike a traditional CSA design, Dennis Derryck’s Corbin Hill Farm network is designed to fit the needs of low-income consumers in Harlem and South Bronx.

| September/October 2012

The folks behind Harlem-based Corbin Hill Farm don’t see sustainably grown local produce as a passing craze for the foodie elite; on the contrary, they’re figuring out a way to make it accessible to low-income communities on a large scale.

Founder and longtime Harlem resident Dennis Derryck has long been aware that people in his community and the nearby South Bronx don’t have much access to good, fresh food. But when it came to solutions, as he saw it, “all these small and beautiful things had very little impact. School gardens, rooftop gardens, educational programs—at the end of the program, where was the parent or the kid supposed to go?”

Derryck saw promise of more lasting change in the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model. But a traditional CSA design—in which members essentially invest in a local farm by paying a large share at the beginning of the season—wouldn’t work for neighborhoods where many residents live on food stamps and struggle to make rent on time. So Derryck tweaked the model to make sense for low-income consumers: Corbin Hill shareholders pay only a week in advance, can put their shares on hold at any time, and can use any form of payment—including food stamps. The program caters to neighborhood cultural tastes by including items like cilantro, tomatillos, and collard greens when possible, and every box comes with recipes written in both Spanish and English.

The actual Corbin Hill Farm sits on 95 acres Derryck owns in Schoharie County, New York. Eleven initial investors provided the start-up funds, and 75 percent of that money, Derryck notes proudly, came from African Americans and Latinos; 51 percent from women. “The investors should look like the community,” he says.

Originally, the plan was for that farm to provide the bulk of the food for urban shareholders, but Derryck soon realized the operation would scale up much faster by sourcing from a network of producers in the area. Now the food delivered to the city comes from a cooperative of 15 farmers—many of them young—who meet every January to devise a harvest plan for the season.

The first year the farm share was up and running, the goal was to reach 175 shareholders. It had 195 the first week. The second year saw an average 450 shareholders. This year, the third, Derryck says they’re averaging 750 shareholders so far. Clearly, he says, “it has struck a chord.”