Tony Hillery is on a mission to teach children in his Harlem community how to adopt healthier food habits.

“It's a simple formula here that if a child plants it, they will eat it," he said. "Eighty percent of the time that they eat it, they'll like it.”

Hillery is the founder of Harlem Grown, an organization that inspires “local youth to lead more healthy, ambitious lives through hands on education, mentorship and urban farming.” It all started nine years ago during the last financial crisis when Hillery's business hit a rough patch and he started reading about schools in underserved communities.

“One day I just came down here [to the local garden] to start volunteering and I walked in and I started working with these children," he said. "And the rest is, as they say, history.”

Harlem Grown has dedicated itself to fighting the growing food insecurity crisis.

“We found it very troubling that children in the community couldn't even identify simple vegetables, no less eat them," Hillery explained. "Once they started growing those same vegetables, they started eating it right off of the vine. And that's when we kind of put it together.”

The community's sustainable garden currently features leafy greens, eggplants, melons, tomatoes and more.

Hillery said his thinking has evolved since the coronavirus pandemic started.

“I truly believe that to not learn during COVID and not understand that just feeding communities and not empowering those same communities with advocacy, social and racial justice, civics, health care, all of those other elements that are lacking in these communities, I think would not only be tone deaf, but be disingenuous for the communities that we serve,” he said.

PHOTO: Caption: "Harlem Grown" by Tony Hillery
"Harlem Grown" by Tony Hillery
"Harlem Grown" by Tony Hillery

Hillery said the work is challenging, especially in this climate, but the community he’s built help keeps him motivated.

“You're greeted with smiles and hugs and affirmation every step of the way from your first step off the train 10 blocks away to the site,” said Hillery. “I’m not a farmer. I never grew anything before here, but I do grow children.”

Hillery’s children's picture book "Harlem Grown" is currently available wherever books are sold.