You might call Dennis Derryck something of a middleman for fruits and vegetables grown in the quiet farm towns of upstate New York and trucked to the South Bronx, Washington Heights, and Harlem. You could also call him a social entrepreneur, a community activist, a mathematician, and a visionary. As for the New Yorkers buying up the local produce? Don’t call them customers. They’re shareholders, he says, “with a capital S.”
Through the Corbin Hill Food Project, which he founded in 2010, Derryck has introduced a new audience to the traditional farm-share model, which relies on a set of members willing to pay hundreds of dollars up front for a seasonal share of a farm’s crops, making a direct investment in the farm’s operation. But Corbin Hill takes that financial pressure off its shareholders, who are chiefly low-income people of color, many living more than 200 percent below poverty level. To make the farm share manageable for these community members, Derryck requires payment just one week in advance of each delivery of fruits and veggies, and he has found ways to subsidize the cost of the shares through various federal, state and city programs.
“We understand full well the importance of supporting farmers,” Derryck says, but recipients of food stamps cannot afford three months of advance payments to finance their work.The payment plan solution came partly out of feedback Derryck received during listening sessions with residents in the South Bronx. Many in the community-supported agriculture (CSA) movement doubted that the weekly payment model would work, he noted. But it did. In its first year, Derryck worked with four farmers to serve 200 shareholders. Within four years the operation expanded to include 42 farms and quadruple the number of original shareholders. And by 2017, more than 34,000 shares were distributed, with produce sourced from 350 farmers.
As the business model of Corbin Hill has evolved, Derryck and his fellow cofounders have chosen to target their limited resources to best reaching those low-income communities not being served by the existing food system. By working together with a few hundred different farms upstate as well as half a dozen New York City-based food hubs—which do the work of aggregating the varied produce—Corbin Hill has been able to avert the need for major capital investments in a warehouse and trucks and other costly infrastructure.
The payment plan wasn’t the only key to connecting with potential shareholders in low-income communities of color. Derryck also offered participants a say in what the farmers were growing for their community. “We started from a demand perspective,” he said to an audience of social entrepreneurs at a 2014 conference organized by the Center for Transformative Action. It was different from the typical approach of “Here’s what the farmer has to give to you,” he said, which puts the consumers’ needs second. For his community, collard greens, cilantro, and callaloo—a staple of Jamaican and Trinidadian cuisine—were all big requests (Derryck often points out that more than one-third of New York City residents are immigrants).
Just as Corbin Hill’s shareholders have gained access to more satisfying and healthy meal choices—options too often missing in low-income neighborhoods like the South Bronx—the farmers of Schoharie County supplying the produce have also benefited by gaining access to new markets. Before connecting with Corbin Hill, they didn’t have a market in the city, Derryck says. “We always chuckle about the fact that when we started in Schoharie County, there were 31 people per square mile living there and we were working in the South Bronx with 32,000 people per square mile.” The founders recognized a need to bridge the gap between upstate and downstate, and between rural and urban communities.
Building that urban-rural link turned out to be the initial cornerstone of Corbin Hill’s success. For small farmers with limited finances, it’s often not feasible to compete at New York’s major farmers’ markets, Derryck explains. “If you really study who is in the city, they’re not really small farmers. Many of the sites are populated by larger farms.” But through Corbin Hill, small-scale farms can combine their limited crop yields, and make use of existing delivery and distribution infrastructure to move the goods downstate, so that farmers don’t have to provide transportation themselves.
“While the farmers’ market and traditional CSA model have worked for some farmers, they can be too resource intensive for others,” says NRDC staff attorney and food law expert Margaret Brown. “Having to send a truck down, and someone to sit at the farmer’s market all day, can be a big expense.”
It took a while for Derryck and his Corbin Hill cofounders to arrive at an efficient business model. Originally he and the 10 other investors who put up $700,000 to get the project off the ground (with 72 percent of that funding coming from blacks and Latinas, he notes), “had this wonderful, naïve notion that we could buy a farm and grow stuff, feed the community,” he says. “None of us knew anything about farming.” What they did feel certain about, however, was that lack of access to fresh produce was a major cause of diet-related health problems in the South Bronx. Addressing these health challenges, predominantly affecting the city’s communities of color, was a central goal.
The group initially purchased a plot of 95 acres in Schoharie County. Eventually they realized that they should focus instead on community building and leave the farming to the locals—many of them “sixth- and seventh-generation farmers [who] knew everything about farming that would take us another 15 years to learn,” Derryck says. Still, he and his partners haven’t abandoned their original plan to use the 95-acre plot (now the site of some 75 active beehives) as a community resource. “One of the fundamental values that we believe is if communities really don’t own any of this stuff, it’s not going to be sustainable,” he says. Ultimately, he adds, without land justice, there can be no food justice.
To help him in this endeavor, Derryck turned to the Food and Beverage Law Clinic at Pace University, the core of the NRDC–Pace Food Law Initiative. In 2017, students of the clinic took on Corbin Hill as a client and drew up various options for how Corbin Hill could use the land as a community gathering space, one that could potentially serve as a retreat for activists, a learning center for culinary and nutrition-related programs, a way to connect farmers with consumers, and more. Critically, the clinic emphasized structures that would allow the community to have a say in how the site would be used and whom it would serve. The law students also provided options for what a community-owned farm might look like, with shareholders having a direct stake in the land—for example, by running it as a nonprofit with community governance.
Derryck is deeply invested in the founding ideals of Corbin Hill, and Brown—who helped launch the partnership with Pace and plays an advisory role—says he’s changing the shape of the food system in New York City. “Dennis is a big thinker,” she says, focused on “the cutting-edge issues in food equity. Corbin Hill Food Project tries to address many of the injustices in our food system, both around ownership of our food system and low-income communities of color and around access and affordability of healthy food, all of which are really pressing issues of the moment.”
Corbin Hill has been a natural outgrowth from Derryck’s background in social justice. He arrived in New York City from Trinidad as a young man in 1954. In 1963, just as he was beginning his third year of graduate school, white supremacists detonated a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a center for the city’s black population and civil rights organizers. The bomb killed four young girls and wounded 22 other people. Witnessing the violent struggle for civil rights in the South at that time shaped Derryck’s life path. “I said, ‘I’m never going to stay in this country; I’m going back to Trinidad,’” he says. “Of course I didn’t.”
He went on to do graduate work in mathematics at Columbia University, and one of the first projects he tackled, while still completing his PhD, was to shake up a local sheet metal union that had never admitted a black or Latino member in its 75-year history. Some of Derryck’s fellow civil rights activists attributed the problem to an entrance exam that people of color, they said, simply couldn’t pass. “We had this myth that kids didn’t know how to do physics or they didn’t know how to do math. Nonsense.” He and his roommate, who was studying physics, created a tutoring program that helped the first blacks and Latinos pass the test and break the union’s color barrier.
Later, Derryck served as the founding chair for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a Harlem group that addresses environmental racism, such as the disproportionate siting of polluting facilities in communities of color. Though he shifted his attention to feeding the local community eight years ago, he continues to serve on WE ACT’s board and as a professor of professional practice at New York’s New School as a member of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy.
The primary lesson of this mathematician-turned-civil-rights-activist-turned-farm-share-purveyor? “I tell my students, don’t tell me what you know about something. Tell me what you don’t know about something. It’s a question of how you deal with assumptions, how you deal with what we accept as truth. They need to be challenged.”
Nicole Greenfield contributed reporting for this story.
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