The NYU Urban Farm Lab is Back: Q&A with Melissa Metrick

Melissa Metrick (MA ‘14) spends her days in New York City gardening. (Yes, you read that right — gardening.) As the instructor for Steinhardt’s Introduction to Urban Agriculture class, which draws students from across NYU, Metrick operates the newly reinstated NYU Urban Farm Lab located on Houston Street. The space serves as both a teaching space for students as well as a planting space for the surrounding community. The Urban Farm Lab will host two Urban Agriculture classes this fall as well as a harvest day for community members. Based on high demand for the course, three sections will likely be offered in the spring.

Here, Melissa shares her background and some insight into urban farming.

What is your background, and what made you interested in urban farming/gardening?
I have been involved with urban agriculture for over 12 years. My first experience working within urban ag was during my time as an Americorps volunteer, where I worked at a school garden called Willard Greening Project located in South Berkeley. There I taught students how to grow and cook healthy foods.

I studied urban agriculture as well as many other food policy related concepts and issues while a student in the MA in Food Studies program here at NYU Steinhardt. After receiving my master’s, I began teaching the Introduction to Urban Agriculture Class.

For the past six years, I have also been the garden manager at Roberta’s Pizza and Blanca Restaurant in Brooklyn. I work closely with the chefs and grow many different fruits and vegetables on site in the restaurant’s backyard garden. My goal as the gardener is to teach the restaurant staff as well as guests how to grow and harvest fruits and veggies using sustainable agricultural practices.

I became interested in urban agriculture for many different reasons, from being concerned with the environmental effects of certain agricultural practices, to wanting to change my own eating habits and eat healthier, as well as teaching people how to be more self-sufficient and take charge of their own health and eating practices.

How long have you been teaching the Urban Ag class? What are the basic principles you want students to get out of the class?
I have been teaching the class since Spring semester of 2015, and am entering my third year teaching it this fall. The basics that we want students to get out of the class are:

  • Demonstrate basic horticultural knowledge and techniques to grow edible crops.
  • Identify and evaluate different agricultural and horticultural designs for specific food producing goals in an urban environment.
  • Explore how larger themes such as entrepreneurship, food justice, culture, and identity is performed within urban agriculture.
  • Identify how urban agriculture is connected within the larger urban food system.
  • Demonstrate the ability to create an urban agriculture plan.

Today there are so many processed foods on the market and conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are on the rise. How do you think that teaching students about whole foods and where they come from will help?
There are so many studies out now that show the effects of school gardens on students. I have my students read the article The Effects of School Garden Experiences on Middle School–Aged Students’ Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behaviors Associated with Vegetable Consumption by Michelle M. Ratcliffe, PhD; Kathleen A. Merrigan, PhD; Beatrice L. Rogers, PhD; and Jeanne P. Goldberg, RD, PhD.

This study mentions that when students are exposed to a school garden and work hands-on growing fruits and vegetables, it helps them able to identify more fruits and veggies, and most importantly try more, which helps them get their daily intake of fruits and vegetables. Not to mention, the physical labor that is involved in gardening helps students stay active and healthy. These are habits that they can take with them outside of the classroom as well.

What are your favorite plants to grow?
It is so hard to have favorites — it’s almost like asking you to pick your favorite child. I like to grow new and different edible varietals of fruits and vegetables every year. I grow varieties that have a rich historical and cultural background, and varieties that have been around for a while that have a story to them. In growing and teaching the people about these varieties, I know I am keeping them alive and prevalent within our modern food system as well as helping build biodiversity within our urban environment.

One variety that we are growing at NYU’s Urban Farm right now that we haven’t grown there before is epazote, a common herb used in Central and Southern Mexico, and Guatemala. It is usually used in making beans, stews and other rustic dishes.