Eric Schalk started New City Neighbors in 2007 to serve the youth of Creston Neighborhood in Grand Rapids’ Northeast side. Housed in Fourth Reformed Church, NCN has been able to provide a variety of programing that helps empower youth to reach their full potential. There are summer camps, after school tutoring, mentoring programs, a bakery that teaches middle school students job and life skills, as well as faith and leadership development programs, and a community garden. In 2012, Lance Kraai joined Eric at NCN to create a job skills training program for high school youth. Forth Reformed had a large plot of land behind the church that had been unused for more than 50 years, but in that plot there was a lot of possibility. New City Farm was born.
The farmer’s field is a harsh and wonderful place to teach kids the value of hard work. Additionally, there are benefits to small scale organic farming that mechanized mass production cannot provide. Rather than two or three crops, New City Farm grows dozens, each with their own unique needs. Student workers must learn those different needs and how to address them. Direct to customer sales also provides an excellent opportunity to work on job skills like customer service, social media, marketing, writing, planning, organizing, and building. NCN saw the farm program as a way to provide a wide variety of skills and experiences to better prepare youth for the workforce and life. In 2017 the farm introduced a side venture, New City Cafe. This new program was designed to increase useful work experience for our students and draw the middle school youth and high school employees together. It will be a combination of our bakery program and the value added farm products from the last few years.
New City Farm uses a social enterprise model to accomplish its goals as sustainable as possible. We are a non profit organization, but we are also a business. By selling the produce we grow on the farm we are able to support a majority of our operations without donations. This is an impressive feat that requires constant work, especially when the farm’s priority remains in teaching the students through curriculum, discussion, devotions and field trips, non of which provide income. This model not only releases some of the burden of relying on grants or donations, it gives the students a sense of entrepreneurial accomplishment.
Every year the farm grows and changes in some way. We learn new techniques and find better seed and better vegetable varieties to improve our production. New City Farm started as a half acre plot, but has grown to three acres. Originally a 20 family CSA, the farm now serves almost 200 families with several local wholesale accounts and food pantry connections. The unused field in the middle of the neighborhood now teams with life. Annual and perennial vegetables, herbs, and flowers fill just about every available space. New City Farm is venturing into fruit, building off the success of the raspberries by adding blueberries, strawberries, grapes and more to compliment the maturing apple and peach trees surrounding the farm.
Every year this space becomes more beautiful and more active. The farm tries new strategies to make the neighborhood farm stand work for everyone, and cooking classes have been introduced to bring people together. The newest project, our cafe, includes an outdoor wood-fired oven for neighborhood pizza or barbecue nights. We work hard, using this space not just to grow for our community, but to grow community itself. If you’d like more information about our parent organization go here, or if you’d like to donate to help support our ongoing efforts in the community go here.