A small garden’s big impact

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A West Harlem lot’s bounty goes to a soup kitchen


  • The Riverside Valley Community Garden at the western end of 138th Street. The garden's bounty is shared with an Upper West Side soup kitchen. Photo: Richard Khavkine

  • Oregano, thyme, parsley and catnip are among the herbs grown at the Riverside Valley Community Garden in West Harlem. Photo: Richard Khavkine

Nearly 50 years ago Jenny Benitez threaded a hose through the window of her second story apartment on Riverside Drive above 138th Street and down into an abandoned lot abutting railroad tracks.

Today, that same lot is home to the thriving Riverside Valley Community Garden, which, as of five years ago, started donating its summer harvest — its tomatoes, basil, broccoli and squashes, among other bounty — to Broadway Community’s Four-Star Soup Kitchen at the Broadway Presbyterian Church on 114th Street.

When she first started the garden in the late 1960s, giving its bounty to a local soup kitchen was not part of Benitez’s vision. It was, however, part of Steve Gallagher’s, an avid gardener who helped to establish the RVCG and who was a loyal volunteer up until his passing a few years ago.

“When Steve would plant, it was always with the goal of giving it to the soup kitchens,” Victoria Benitez, Jenny’s daughter, explained. “So he kind of planted the seed.”

The relationship between the RVCG and the Four-Star Soup Kitchen began informally. Prior to the partnership, Jenny Benitez and her late husband, Victor, would simply gather the garden’s produce, drive it down to the soup kitchen in their car, and unload the vegetables.

“We didn’t go for publicity,” Benitez said. For her and her husband, it was only natural to share their excess with the community in as productive a way as they knew how.

The symbiotic partnership between the two institutions is central to the garden’s place in the community, said Dan Garodnick, the former New York City council member who was recently appointed CEO and president of the Riverside Park Conservatory.

“What’s interesting to me about this relationship,” he said, “is that you first have a community garden that physically, and through its own activation of this neighborhood, completely changed it, and now is giving back in yet another way. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Given that the Four-Star Soup Kitchen serves between 100 and 150 people every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, as wide a range of people have benefited from the RVCG’s produce as have helped to cultivate it.

Much of Four-Star’s produce comes from community supported agriculture groups, or CSAs, as well as community gardens, both of which are vital to the soup kitchen’s continued existence.

The garden attracts a wide range of volunteers, diverse in their ethnicities, ages and family dynamics. It has become a staple of the neighborhood, serving to connect those who live nearby both with nature and with one another.

Jenny and Victoria Benitez hope that the garden can serve as a model of community growth, participation and awareness of the environment for those throughout the city. It is Victoria’s belief that if you enable New Yorkers — in fact, residents everywhere — to grow food and create beauty in the same way that Jenny has, “you feed the world.”

Like its soil, the garden’s history is rich, Garodnick said. He recalled how, almost a half-century ago, Jenny Benitez attached a hose to her kitchen sink and brought it 200 yards down to an empty, near-derelict lot.

Today, it is “a space that gives life and bounty to the people who need it, and also life to this community.” With a slight glance at the Eden behind him, he asked, “What could be better than that?”

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