NYC’s Floating Food Barge Pushes For Food Sovereignty Despite Local Laws
Swale is trying to reframe food as a common good for all
Mary Mattingly grew up in an agricultural town in northern Connecticut where drinking water was polluted with pesticides like DDT throughout the 1980’s. Water was thus considered precious and had to be used carefully. These childhood experiences serve as part of the inspiration behind Swale, an NYC-based food initiative that Mattingly founded in 2016. Built on a 130-foot by 40-foot floating platform, Swale is an edible garden that’s open to the public throughout the summer, providing healthy, fresh produce for no charge.
Described by Mattingly as a “social sculpture” that’s ever-changing, Swale helps foster important conversations around food sovereignty—the right for communities to define their own food and agriculture systems—and hopes to reframe food and water as basic rights that ought to be protected. This is of particular pertinence in New York City, where as many as three million people live in food deserts with limited access to fresh produce. For its second summer, Swale has continued to collaborate with partners including the Bronx River Alliance and the New York City Parks Department to expand access to public food in the South Bronx.
City laws limit the ability to grow foods on public lands (in part a measure to control the look of public parks, though it’s also to protect the public from potentially dangerous growing practices) but Swale’s unique status as a floating barge helps it get around these restrictions. Due to its success, Mattingly says the Parks Department is becoming more open to similar food-based projects on land. We recently spoke with her to discuss what Swale will be up to this summer as it currently docks on Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park through June 30.
How did the decision to start Swale come about?
I had done a few different projects on the waterways in New York City before this and realized that the water was a space where you could do things that could not be done on land. The focus of Swale is to really address food forestry on New York City’s public lands and see if, in the future, New York City’s Parks Department would consider having edible landscaping be part of the landscaping of parks. It’s illegal currently, but we wanted to push the envelope with Swale and invite people on to be stewards, but also to pick fresh foods for free to lead by example and say, “We can care for our public parks in different ways.” The initiative came out of lots of different conversations, and also personal issues with food and water from my history, and knowing many people who are affected by food deserts. I was just trying to figure out different ways where we can collectively steward land and think about some of the space in New York City as potentially a commons to reframe food and water as a commons sphere.
You mention some of the legal issues that make it difficult to have a project like this on land; could you explain a bit more?
In New York City, there’s a destruction of property law that extends to public spaces and states that if anything is taken from public property then it’s destruction. That’s been a way for the city to control the look of public parks; the beauty that’s instigated by the official designers of the parks. Also, it’s important for them to consider pesticide use on plants, as well as education. They don’t want people picking something that’s potentially poisonous and thinking it’s not. There are all those issues. What we were trying to say is, “With those things in place, with continued co-education, with continued stewardship, we think that we can make this work.” And we need to make it work, because there are a hundred acres of community garden space in the city and 30,000 acres of park space, but there’s not enough fresh food.
How are you working to change that?
Over the past year, we’ve seen really good progress with the food forest conversation and the Parks Department. They are really willing to try it and they are ready to even break ground on it. The project has happened very fast. In the last six months, the Parks Department has decided to give this a try with enough stewards in a particular area. If it goes well they might try it in other places. We think that that’s a pretty giant breakthrough.
All of us would like for our food to be more sustainably grown, but the reality is that there are millions more mouths to feed than there is space in this city. How do you remedy that?
Urban food forests won’t feed a city like New York anytime soon. However, a multitude of different approaches that are closer to home are necessary if we are going to address the role of industrial farming in climate change, and also begin to heal from damage done to the environment, ourselves, and our neighbors through industrial forms of production that neglect human and environmental health. As a country, the United States has sped towards privatization of everything. So it is no wonder that movements towards food sovereignty and rebuilding common spaces continue to grow stronger. The ability to bridge understandings, communities and knowledge with social love and dignity are urgently needed in order to understand—and then part ways with—systemic social and environmental violence. Social love is itself a commons, and it is what moves us to devise larger strategies together to halt environmental degradation and to encourage care. It’s difficult to presume we can begin healing nature and the environment without, at the same time, being able to trust in our fundamental human relationships.
Where in the city do you dock? Do you tend to focus more on areas with a greater need for fresh produce?
We’re very flexible as to where we go in the city. We’ve only gone to docks that are public in New York City and they’ve been all over. They’re not always in high-needs areas. That’s intentional. I think that in order to spread the word and to get people engaged on different levels, our mission is to reach out, as much as possible, to people across the board from different backgrounds and with different experiences. It helps makes us more knowledgeable about what we’re doing and about the people who experience it.
Swale is totally free for everyone who comes to visit. Is there any limit to how much you could take or how often you can visit?
There is not a limit. It is completely free. It’s done that way in order to have conversations about stewardship, and how, “If one person came and picked all the food, what would happen? It wouldn’t exist for you next time and it wouldn’t exist for anyone next time.” We haven’t had a problem with being that open so far and we would love to continue to run it that way.
What sorts of produce do you typically have available?
That’s a really good question, because a lot if it’s not typical and a lot of it’s not annual. And the annual vegetables that we do have get picked pretty fast. We have a lot more perennial plants that are planted so that we have things that are always growing, even if they’re less typical and medicinal, or things that people would generally not go to the store for. This year, the Parks Department gave us a large gift of a lot of new plants. A lot of them I’m less familiar with, but our horticulturalist was very excited about. They have different edible and medicinal properties. We’re getting a lot more aster, beach plum, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, comfrey, and chokeberry. Comfrey I know is a medicinal. Chokeberry is a less common berry tree, but also really good for making jams. There are more typical things like grapes, blueberries, strawberries, that are perennials. There will be a lot more fruit trees this year, including more apple trees. Then there’s things like salt grass, which I’ve never tasted. We’re trying to find the perennial versions of the annuals that people love, so we don’t have to continually replant things.
What sort of impact have you seen from Swale in the year since you started it?
We’ve seen a lot of people interested in doing similar projects, which is what we had hoped for, either on land, or doing some sort of platform that could be similar to Swale. The biggest thing that we’ve seen is the development of the Foodway that will be at Concrete Plant Park [located on the west bank of the Bronx River.] That’s going to be the Parks Department’s first trial of doing the system on land. It’ll break ground this summer. We plan to go back to Concrete Plant Park with Swale mid-summer and meet the Parks Department’s initiative as they’re starting to break ground.
Is there any way for people to help out if they’re interested?
There’s definitely lots of opportunities for volunteering! Right now, we are an all-volunteer team, so we rely on those who want to work with us and steward, and help us continue to keep the gardens looking good. There’s more info on our website about that.