Interview with Qiana Mickie, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Urban Agriculture

by NYC Food Policy Editor

Qiana Mickie is a New York City based food systems leader and speaker that uses food as a driver of enterprise, innovation, and equity. For over 10 years, she has worked on fostering a food based solidarity economy in the New York region that increases farm viability, healthy food access, and leadership opportunities for small- mid scale regional farmers, youth, Black, Brown, mixed income, and other communities of color. Qiana also brings an equity-driven lens to her local, state, federal, and international policy work on issues such as food sovereignty, land stewardship, and health. Qiana is the former Executive Director of Just Food. During her tenure at Just Food, she advocated for equitable food/farm policy and trained community leaders to start and sustain CSAs, Farmers Markets, and also become Community Chefs. In September 2022, Mayor Eric Adams appointed her to be the very first Executive Director of the Office of Urban Agriculture.

Food Policy Center: Thank you so much for participating in this interview! I would like to start by asking, how have your past experiences (Executive Director of Just Food, food justice and agriculture consultant, and any other experiences both domestically and internationally) informed your current work as the Executive Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Urban Agriculture?

Qiana Mickie: My work in food and agriculture over the past twelve years has given me the opportunity to embody the term “ think globally, act locally.” This has proven valuable to me in my current role as the city’s first Urban Agriculture executive director. Having experience in food/ag policy at the city, state, federal, and international levels, and having worked in solidarity with a strong network of activists and other leaders around the world means that I am on the pulse of intersecting issues and inspired by solutions and innovations that I can bring back to the city. I want to inform and develop smart, resilient, and equitable approaches for New York City through agriculture.

As a new director, I am finding new ways to advance racial, environmental, and economic equity while I build opportunities to be informed by diverse ag stakeholders – and all New Yorkers.

What were your interests before your career, and how have you integrated those interests into your current work? How have you changed since being involved in the work you do?

My early experiences in the food and agriculture landscape included being a community advocate and later, working directly with regional farmers and community members in programming such as starting and maintaining [Community Supported Agriculture] CSAs and advocating for food/ag policy. Before that, I worked in a few different sectors. In my nonprofit experience, I worked to create change in education, financial empowerment, and other areas. I wanted to address the gaps of resources and services in historically divested communities and improve New Yorkers’ livelihood. I still want to tackle inequity and create transformative change.

I have also worked in entertainment and production. Unlike most people, I didn’t envision working on the most creative projects, but really wanted to venture into the business side. While I never became a full-time production manager, I eventually worked in live-event production and in the financial departments of entertainment companies. I bring my passion for the creative process and ability to work with varied personalities, along with my pragmatic business side, to all my food and urban ag work. These experiences have helped me build viability and sustainability in all projects. I learned how to appropriately engage with diverse stakeholders and effect change in multiple sectors with integrity, intention, and equity. In my current role I want to leverage my expertise, desire to effect change, and my commitment to New Yorkers to get stuff done in the city.

Through your past experiences, such as Just Food, you’ve done tremendous work uplifting marginalized voices in the food policy sphere. What work still needs to be done in the intersection of food justice and race, and what can community leaders, policymakers, and any other experts in the field do to further racial equity in the food system?

To further racial equity in the food system, we need to continue to strive for more genuine representation in our food justice systems and in leadership. Genuine practitioners, especially unheralded ones, should be cultivated so they can bring their lessons-learned and experience to different facets of food systems such as informing policy and advocacy. Historically divested communities should not be on the frontlines to experience inequity or pointed to as examples of injustice. Instead, they should be amplified and supported to be on the frontlines to effect change. There are many knowledgeable, skilled practitioners in the food system who don’t get opportunities to lead or innovate.

One of the true benefits and rewards of being in a leadership role is to create space and opportunities for others to grow into leadership and not just hold space for entrenched egos. Nothing will change in our food system without fostering informed, emerging leadership. It will take leaders to move beyond simply making decisions on diversity concerns and addressing actual equity.

Can you share the mission of the office? How do you work collaboratively with other city agencies and offices on urban agriculture? Can you speak a little bit about the various partnerships your office is currently engaged in? What is your vision for the future of the Mayor’s Office of Urban Agriculture?

The Mayor’s Office of Urban Agriculture was established in September 2022 to lead the city’s efforts to increase access to and the production of locally-grown fresh food, minimize our contributions to climate crisis, and spur economic activity through agriculture. In my initial months, I have begun to learn more and explore how to support existing initiatives among city agencies that will advance agriculture on multiple fronts, such as regional food procurement, climate resiliency, and soil remediation. It is important to understand the struggles and barriers city agencies experience so that I can strategize and collaborate with them to develop feasible solutions to meet our city priorities. Urban agriculture can be a driver of equity and change, so I work towards developing ways that it can be instrumental in the city’s efforts to address climate, food, and health disparities in our natural and built environment. My ultimate vision for the office is to improve the ecological, social, cultural, and economic footprint of NYC so it is beneficial to all New Yorkers and good for NYC.

Supporting the ongoing urban ag efforts of the NYC Parks/Greenthumb department’s community gardens as well as the farms at NYCHA program is a natural fit, but I have also been exploring economic development opportunities for farmers and emerging ag-based businesses, the potential for innovative land use in the city, deepening ag educational learning for public school students, and equitable food-procurement opportunities from regional farmers/producers. We are just scratching the surface of urban ag potential in NYC, so I have been researching carbon sequestration, ag-based land-management practices, sustainable controlled-agriculture initiatives, and other innovative climate-resilient ag models such as food forests and rain gardens like those found in other major urban cities. All of this work is informative as I develop a bold, equitable, and resilient urban agriculture plan for NYC. Beyond my internal city engagement, I have supported the urban ag landscape by representing the city on the NYS Ag and Markets Community Garden Taskforce and engaging with the new leadership of the [Farm Service Agency] FSA County Community Board and other relevant state and federal government stakeholders.

How do you get the community interested and involved in urban agriculture? 

I have had multiple stakeholder meetings, visited partners at their sites, and had other meetings to discuss urban agriculture policy and the priorities of community-based organizations. I also speak at community events such as the recent Greenthumb Grow Together Conference. I want to increase awareness of the brilliance and potential of urban agriculture to all New Yorkers, so I intend to leverage my legal mandate to develop and publish the city’s first urban agriculture report this fall to create more community engagement opportunities. I want all folks to be able to provide input and learn as the plan develops. I also engage with the community and share information as best I can through the Office’s social media platforms and external communications.

I also wanted to highlight opportunities for community engagement with the city’s existing urban ag network of gardeners on 554-plus sites under NYC Parks/Greenthumb and with the young land stewards of the Green City Force, East New York Farms, and other partner organizations on Farms at NYCHA. These farms and eco-hubs are sources of fresh food for those who live in NYCHA housing: low- and moderate-income New Yorkers who might otherwise face barriers to accessing fresh food. This year, the city is expanding the number of NYCHA farm sites. I look forward to meeting and engaging new land stewards, tenants, and residents through these projects.

How about elected officials – how can we encourage more politicians to include agriculture on their platforms?

It would be great if every elected official understood the importance of urban agriculture and its value within agriculture. As our country continues to face climate and food supply disturbances, we need elected officials to take urban agriculture seriously and understand the need for policy on the city, state, and federal levels to support the breadth of urban agriculture.

It is encouraging to have existing urban ag champions in Congress such as Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA). He has fought on the Hill for years in support of wellness, food, and urban ag. As a Senior Member of the House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations, he has amplified the critical connection between urban ag and policy and is always looking to learn from practitioners on the ground. This isn’t only in his state. He has taken time to visit NYC-based examples like the New Roots Community Gardens in Queens and the Eco Hub at the NYCHA farm at the Bayview Houses in Brooklyn. But he is not alone. I also think of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is on the Agriculture Committee. Sen. Gillibrand has leveraged her rural ag knowledge into a strong advocacy for rural and urban ag during multiple farm bill cycles. This is also farm bill season, so we look to all of our representatives who advocate for all New Yorkers on issues of equity, food, farming, and health. 

We are at a point of moving past urban pastoral stories that center around one leader or approach to solve structural inequities like food security, the climate crisis, and health comorbidities. We need to acknowledge that for decades, Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities have not been fairly treated and to lift their voice in food and farm policy. Historically, urban agriculture has not received the levels of funding or resources needed to effectively scale up food production or build infrastructure to mitigate or recover from climate impacts or to end hunger. Urban agriculture is directly aligned with supporting food justice – the right to grow, sell, and grow healthy, culturally appropriate food, and with each community’s right to determine the models that foster democracy and economic justice. Urban agriculture, such as community gardens and urban farms, are places of not just food production, but also healing and climate resiliency. 

Government stakeholders can minimize barriers for historically disadvantaged farmers and food-based businesses so that they can apply and fairly compete for governmental contracts and procurement opportunities. Even adapting rules around geographical preference in food procurement can make a difference. Increasing support and funding for research and the development of climate-smart practices and urban-agriculture innovation can help farmers and communities adapt their ag efforts to a changing climate. 

As a longtime grassroots advocate and now as an appointed city official, I can also be an “ambassador” and liaise with elected officials or other key governmental leadership here and abroad who might want to learn more and think innovatively, with an equity lens on urban agriculture or policy. Given my experience on the ground and in international policy circles, I believe I can provide insight into urban agriculture beyond the usual talking points and amplify actual practitioners and stories of resilience that often are not heard.

The New York State Community Garden Task Force, of which you are a member, recently released its 2023 Report. What are some of the most interesting findings from the report? What are the opportunities you are most excited to explore in the next report, to be released in 2028? 

The NYS Community Garden Task Force Report helped amplify the impact that the resilient efforts and sweat equity of land stewards have had on growing and maintaining community gardens and urban farms across the state. The number of community gardens they identified surprised me (in a good way)! There were so many! I want to lift up the diversity of approaches and missions of community gardeners and the ways these spaces feed and nourish their communities. The report highlights how the State can continue to find ways to disseminate resources and foster the collective power of ag across NY. The report also reminds me of how important it is for us to support intergenerational leadership and cultivate emerging leaders for our cherished gardens.

As I continue to develop the city’s urban ag plan, I will consider what metrics could help continue to tell the story of community-based ag and how to build those tools and data collection. In future state reports, I hope to see more examples of innovative land use, and community-determined models across the state that reflect the continued efforts of urban farming, composting, and even stormwater capture, and new data to demonstrate impact. I hope a future report can highlight how much more vibrant, greener, and resilient the community ag footprint has become not just in NYC, but also other communities in our state. I also hope we see a trend toward increasing resources and seeing the number of youth in our community gardens growing and in leadership positions. So much can come from putting a seed in the ground!

What about food forests? Some people might know about the food forest atop the Javits Center – where are other opportunities for food forests to become part of NYC’s urban agriculture field?

I’m excited about the prospects and potential of bringing climate-resilient models like food forests to NYC. We have had different food forest projects such as the Javits Center, the Swale barge, or the food forest in Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx pop up around the city over the last few years. Food forests are created by planting a variety of plants, a tree canopy, and native perennials that all help each other survive and thrive with minimal maintenance from land stewards. Food forests can be any size or scale and would offer not just another avenue of food production in the city; but also, healthy soil, plants, and trees are our best friends in the process of carbon sequestration (taking carbon, a greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere). To make new ag models like food forests in the city a reality, planning, land use and legal assessments needed to be done. Having a comprehensive urban agriculture plan can help gather critical data and identify the potential impact and benefits of urban ag projects.

What about NYC makes urban agriculture and food policy unique?

We are the greatest city in the world within one of the nation’s strongest foodsheds and watersheds. Meeting the diverse needs of New Yorkers and food/ ag policy to support the scope of NYC is a challenge. We are fortunate to have a rich ag history and land stewards to learn from not just statewide, and more than ever the chance to tap the potential of urban ag.

Fast Facts
Grew up in: the Bronx
City or town you call home: Harlem
Job title: Executive Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Urban Agriculture
Background and education: B. S. in Marketing from Hampton University; Certificate in Food Hub Management from University of Vermont
One word you would use to describe our food system: Complex
Food policy hero: Lydia Villaneuva, Director and Founder of CASA del Llano, Inc.
Your breakfast this morning: Hawthorne Valley maple yogurt with granola (local all the way!)
Favorite food: summer ripe tomatoes from the vine
Favorite last meal on Earth: a meal made with love
Favorite food hangout: Farmer’s markets
Food policy social media must follow: @grocery.nerd

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