Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

16 October 2024

World Food Day

Karen Washington

“The future of urban agriculture is dependent on equity and access.”

United States of America 

“Outside of New York City, Karen Washington is perhaps best known as the co-founder of Black Urban Growers, the organization behind the largest annual gathering in the United States of America of urban farmers for more than a decade. 

But within the city, she’s been beloved since the 1980s for her work to build urban farms, facilitate markets and champion equitable food systems in urban communities.  

“To grow your own food gives you power and dignity,” she says. “You know exactly what you’re eating because you grew it. And you did this for yourself, your family and your community.”  

As a farmer and food justice advocate, she first cofounded the Garden of Happiness in the Bronx, in northern New York City, which became a model for community gardens in her area.  

Karen then teamed up with Bronx Green-Up, a community gardening outreach programme, to secure empty lots across the Bronx and turned them into gardens and urban farms. Today, the programme works with more than 200 such green spaces and manages 14 farm hubs that distribute fresh produce to the community at affordable prices.  

For her work, Karen received two James Beard Awards, one of the United States of America’s highest honours in the area of food.  

Water access and management is vital to community gardens and urban farms, she says, so advocating for water rights and responsible water governance is an important part of her work.  

“The future of urban agriculture is dependent on equity and access,” according to Karen, especially in areas with socioeconomic and climate challenges. That’s why cities will need to incentivise building green roofs and other ways to collect and make use of rainwater in the future, she says.  

Karen, meanwhile, has been teaching people best practices for water use, how to harvest rainwater and make catchment systems – techniques that can determine a garden’s success or failure, she says.  

“Growing up in New York City, you take water access for granted. You just turn on the faucet as a child and it seems like an unlimited resource,” she says. “As you get older…. you become cognizant of how precious and limited it really is.”