Hakim, Meet Hakeem: How a Young City Farmer Got to Know a Congressman

Hakim, Meet Hakeem: How a Young City Farmer Got to Know a Congressman

Growing up, Hakim Jeffrey did not think much about politics. But people would often point out that his name sounded very similar to the name of his representative in Congress, a rising star in the House and fellow Brooklyn native.

“All of them would just tell me, ‘You should meet this man some day,’” Mr. Jeffrey said.

He brushed it off. Mr. Jeffrey, who lived in the Bay View Houses, a public housing development in Canarsie, thought of himself then as “just a regular 16-year-old boy from the projects.”

Then, at 18, he started working on a new farm at the development, one of several the New York City Housing Authority had helped build to provide healthy food for residents.

He loved it.

Before, he had been an introvert who skipped school to play video games. On the farm, he would give important people tours, showing how he grew chard, kale, tomatoes, squash, basil and other produce.

Mr. Jeffrey, now 24, got more involved, finding purpose in helping a public housing community often overlooked by the outside world, unless a building was falling apart.

On a cloudy March afternoon last year, one of his tour participants had a familiar name. That was when Hakim Jeffrey met Hakeem Jeffries.

“‘You have the coolest name out there,’” Mr. Jeffrey recalls Mr. Jeffries telling him.

The meeting between Mr. Jeffrey and Mr. Jeffries, 53, a Brooklyn Democrat and the House minority leader, was maybe just an amusing coincidence. But Mr. Jeffrey also saw it as something a little more than that: a moment that highlighted the underappreciated potential of Brooklyn’s youth.

Civic leadership is typically the bailiwick of older people, especially in New York City’s public housing system, where nearly 43 percent of the households are headed by people 62 or older. Mr. Jeffrey aims to change that.

“How we can improve our lifestyles — it starts with our young people,” he said.

Mr. Jeffries, the congressman, grew up in a modest brownstone in Central Brooklyn, a part of the city that in the 1980s was also shaped by the drug trade. He was part of an earlier generation of Black politicians — including Mayor Eric Adams and Letitia James, the state’s attorney general — who came up in Brooklyn.

People regularly ask if Mr. Jeffrey was named after Mr. Jeffries, who is 30 years older. Beyond their upbringing in the Black community in Brooklyn, there’s no connection, Mr. Jeffrey said. His father was Muslim and liked the name Hakim. But he doesn’t mind the comparisons.

Originally from Bushwick, Mr. Jeffrey moved with his mother and sister to Bay View in 2009. He said his diet, like that of other teenagers who lived in the Canarsie complex, included copious amounts of food from Dunkin’, Popeyes and McDonald’s nearby.

Mr. Jeffrey said it felt like the environment was “designed to keep you unhealthy.” He has asthma and said he noticed how people living at Bay View often had diabetes, high blood pressure and other health problems. The community district that includes Bay View has an obesity rate of 41 percent, about 16 percentage points higher than the city overall.

Before he discovered the farm, he felt unmotivated. He had no plan for his life after he graduated from high school in 2017, and spent most of his days “killing time.”

His mother brought home a flier that advertised a new AmeriCorps program run by Green City Force, a nonprofit, at the Bay View farm, which was built in 2016.

There are nine such farms across the city, and the number is growing. Bay View is the largest; its two acres used to be an empty field where Mr. Jeffrey would play football with other children.

He was skeptical. But he said he would try it.

The program enrolled young people between the ages of 18 and 24 to help run the farms and eventually get jobs that could use those skills. Mr. Jeffrey said his “whole entire life changed.” Suddenly, people seemed interested in his future.

He found joy in educating residents at Bay View about healthy food. He took to it so well that Green City Force hired Mr. Jeffrey in 2019 to coordinate other farm workers at Bay View.

He was recently promoted and now works with young people at Bay View and five other developments, including on Staten Island, in Queens and in Brownsville in Brooklyn.

Andrea Mata, NYCHA’s director of resident heath initiatives, said Bay View residents “had to come to terms with not seeing him as often.”

“There’s never enough Hakim to go around,” she said.

The farms produce thousands of pounds of produce every year, available free to public housing residents. When Mr. Jeffries visited last March, he lauded Bay View farm as a promising model for how to improve nutrition in underserved communities. He also had some words for his tour guide.

“That name is pretty easy for me to remember,” he said in a speech. “Hakim Jeffrey, thank you so much for your extraordinary leadership and your work.”

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