“Food desert” is no longer a jargon term for nutrition experts or urban planners. The general population is becoming more aware of the issues around access to healthy foods, particularly in the low-income communities. Leaders in Philadelphia are seeing how this issue affects the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where people suffer from a lack of access to fruits and vegetables and, subsequently, a number of health issues including hunger, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
In ongoing discussions about the problem, responses embracing local food production and the “local food economy” (another term quickly catching on) are bubbling to the top. At the city level, the administration of Mayor Nutter has responded with announcements of official plans to combat the food access problem. Objectives include furthering the growth of a “regional sustainable food and urban agriculture system,” as described by the Philadelphia Food Charter, and a push “to help bring local food within a ten-minute walk of 75 percent of residents,” which is stipulated in Greenworks Philadelphia, the city’s official sustainability plan.
The problem here is not one of vision. The city’s blueprint for greater local food production levels was developed through the input and feedback of civic leadership, nonprofit organizations and business leaders. However, implementation requires much greater resources, infrastructure and innovation. The competitor, after all, is one of the world’s most subsidized industrial food systems.
City Harvest, a five-year-old program run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Philadelphia Green Program, has helped lead a response to all of these issues by growing and distributing fresh produce and building strong links in a budding local food network. In the past six months, Philadelphia Green has added to this supply chain the Community Growers Alliance, a new initiative to encourage local entrepreneurial growers to grow produce that supplements their income and benefits local food cupboards. This article is an introduction to the Growers Alliance, which is just one component within a greater public/private network advancing a local food system that has remained marginal for some time.
“We Don’t Waste a Good Crisis”
The story of City Harvest, as told by Joan Reilly, Senior Director of Philadelphia Green (PG), begins with financial and institutional uncertainty. Seven years ago, Reilly’s program, a 36-year-old operation responsible for creating or supporting some 400 community gardens, had received word from its supporters that it was time to change strategy or grant funds could dry up. The foundations urged PG to define the value of gardening as more than a hobby. They wanted to know: What was the value of these gardens to the larger neighborhood?
“We say at PG that we never waste a good crisis,” says Reilly. PG leaders saw a learning opportunity and went on a “walkabout” through the city’s low-income neighborhoods to get a closer look at the productive operations scattered throughout backyards and community plots. “Many of the gardeners and gardens were in low-income neighborhoods,” Reilly remembers, “and gardeners being generous in nature, we think, were informally sharing the fruits of their labor.” PG imagined that community gardeners could get fresh produce to those in need in a “more informal, strategic way.”
The need was clear then, and the situation has not changed. One study found that Philadelphia has the second-lowest number of supermarkets per capita in the United States, and that approximately 71,000 adult residents report it is difficult to find fruits and vegetables in their neighborhood (The Food Trust and the Philadelphia Health Management Corporation 2006).
PG established City Harvest as a way for gardeners to assist in responding to issues of hunger, nutrition, the local food economy, and health and fitness (gardening, advocates point out, is a physical activity). Program coordinators reasoned that the gardeners could optimize production if they had seedlings, or “starts,” and they found a source in an unlikely partner, the Philadelphia Prison System, which had a neglected greenhouse in its main complex in Northeast Philadelphia. The greenhouse’s restoration and the technical assistance provided by City Harvest gardening specialists helped implement a new job-readiness program in horticulture and landscaping.
The new Roots to Reentry Garden took its place at the head of the supply chain; additional partners recruited as key links were SHARE (Self Help and Resource Exchange), a nonprofit that began including City Harvest produce in the food it delivered to area cupboards; 21 community gardens that agreed to share the produce they grow; and the Health Promotion Council, which provides nutrition education to food cupboard clients, community gardeners and their neighbors. Between 2005 and 2009, City Harvest donated more than 51,000 pounds of organic produce, and during last year’s growing season the program reached an estimated 900 families a week (Pennsylvania Horticultural Society 2009).
City Harvest had the momentum to expand, and there was an opportunity to bolster a missing link in the chain: the organic gardeners who could deliver produce in greater quantities. “We wanted to tap into people that want to make a better living as urban farmers,” says Reilly, “or at least want to get oriented to that and experience it in a safe way, with some support.” Along with providing necessary materials like seedlings and soil, PG could also provide the necessary training so aspiring growers could gain experience in areas such as organic pest management, season extension, growing for market, crop planning, marketing and networking.
Last November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture supported Philadelphia Green’s vision for entrepreneurial small-scale farming by awarding a $300,000 grant for the Community Growers Alliance. The three-year grant will support three activities: the formation of a network of urban entrepreneurial growers; the development of market opportunities including neighborhood farmers’ markets and local wholesale buyers; and the creation of three gardening training/resource hubs called “Neighborhood Green Centers,” each with a hoop house or full greenhouse. In return for the support that growers receive, they will pay a membership fee, volunteer six hours per year to build their capacity as growers, complete mandatory workshops and crop planning sessions, and donate a crop percentage (not yet determined) to local food cupboards.
One Green Center is already up and running at the Weaver’s Way Cooperative Farm and will serve the Lower Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood. PG plans to build the remaining two centers over the course of the next two years in West Philadelphia and Lower North Philadelphia/New Kensington, two neighborhoods targeted as high-poverty areas.
A key innovation of the Growers Alliance initiative is its blueprint for expanding the local food economy. In addition to serving as places to receive materials, the Green Centers will be open for the public to take workshops and learn, on a more rudimentary level, the best practices of urban farmers. This training will equip residents to be become potential food producers themselves. PG also envisions that new farmers’ markets will be located on or near Green Centers, thereby fostering synergy between local production and local purchasing. All these elements are essential to increasing community self-reliance and strengthening the local food system.
“We Never Travel Alone”
City Harvest is an intensively collaborative effort comprising a public/private circle of citizens, volunteers, nonprofits, a government agency (the Philadelphia Prison System) and now growers. Along with “We don’t waste a good crisis,” another PG mantra is “We never travel alone.” The program is an example of a local food system with potential to become sustainable through a strategy favoring cooperation over competition. The entrepreneurial gardeners and farmers of the Growers Alliance can align with these partners to leverage their impact. Below is a brief exploration of strategic partnership opportunities.
The Health Promotion Council (HPC)
HPC is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to promoting health and preventing and managing chronic disease through community-based outreach, education and advocacy. Through the City Harvest program, HPC’s Food and Nutrition Educators have taught healthy cooking lessons at food cupboards and gardens. It is a vital service for people unversed in preparing unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, increasing familiarity with novel foods and promoting the joys of healthy cooking. Growers Alliance growers could partner with these educators to arrange cooking lessons right in their gardens, or the lessons could take place in a Neighborhood Garden Center.
Weavers Way Cooperative Association
Weavers Way is a successful grocery cooperative with multiple outlets available to local growers to reach their customers. Along with jointly operating a Green Center for City Harvest’s inaugural year, Weavers Way has provided City Harvest with a refrigerated truck that will drive to Growers Alliance sites, pick up growers’ fruits and vegetables, weigh them, and provide vouchers to the growers for payment. This system has the potential to meet the major challenge for growers to find viable market opportunities.
The General Community
Gardening is a popular pursuit, and, as any member of PG’s community programs will attest, Philadelphia residents are proponents of both ornamental and vegetable gardening. The upshot is that new entrepreneurial growers could identify skilled volunteers or knowledge partners right on their own block or less than a mile away.
While the distribution networks connected with community and squatter gardens are generally informal, the total output is impressive. A 2008 Harvest Report by Domenic Vitiello and Michael Nairn, two urban studies professors at the University of Pennsylvania, reported a total yearly yield in Philadelphia of over two million pounds, with an estimated value of over $4.8 million (Vitiello and Nairn 2009). The research also found that a large segment of gardeners are part of an older generation of minority gardeners who immigrated from farming regions such as the southern United States and Puerto Rico (Vitiello and Nairn 2009/10). These gardeners have a wealth of knowledge that they pass on to younger gardeners.
Collaborating with neighbors and other volunteers is already integral to the work of one member of the Growers Alliance, Ryan Kuck, and his organization, Preston’s Paradise (named after its site on Preston Street). Located in the Belmont neighborhood and run by Kuck and his partner, Suzanna Urminksa, Preston’s Paradise is an all-volunteer resource center inviting neighbors to “increase their self-sufficiency and inter-reliance.” Neighbors can participate in activities including biweekly farmers’ markets, sustainability workshops, and a new program called OURfarms (Organic URban Farms). OURfarms is a partnership through which homeowners can turn their unused backyard lot into farms, with some of the produce allocated for their own consumption and the rest supplying the neighborhood farmers’ market. OURfarms benefits from the starts and other materials supplied by City Harvest.
This program example illustrates two interesting things about the design of small-scale growing initiatives like OURfarms and the Community Growers Alliance. First, these are replicable models. With enough materials and technical support, trained growers can pass on their knowledge and skill sets to other residents so that they can become food producers themselves, either as small-scale entrepreneurial growers or small-scale homesteaders. Kuck is confident that Growers Alliance can reach its target of adding 40 more growers to the pioneer group of 15. “The farmers are out there, definitely. I have no question about that,” he says. The same can be said about the growth potential of his own OURfarms model, which has already recruited three backyard farmers in its first year, although as a neighborhood enterprise centered on sustainability, Preston’s Paradise is focused on remaining appropriately scaled.
Second, the design of OURfarms points to the limitations that urban agriculturalists still face regarding vacant land policy. Growing food on deserted lots is an often-discussed strategy, but Preston’s Paradise knows that there is no guarantee that the city will protect a thriving garden from redevelopment.
One goal of the Philadelphia Food Charter states that the Office of Sustainability will “explore the use of City-owned spaces and City equipment to facilitate getting supplies to people who want to grow food locally” (City of Philadelphia 2009). That word, “explore,” does not necessarily instill confidence in the sustainability set. Yet a recent announcement about a farming project led by the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation could signal a start. The Department has invited farmers to operate commercial operations on 10 half-acre chemical-free plots at Manatawna Farm, a tract of Fairmount Park land in Roxborough. The leases for the plot are slated to begin June 1, which is early enough to sow seeds and expect a small harvest by the end of the season.
Brian Baughan is a Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal Fellow.
City of Philadelphia. (2009). Greenworks Philadelphia. Available at http://www.phila.gov/green/greenworks/PDFs/Greenworks_OnlinePDF_FINAL.pdf. (accessed May 8, 2010).
The Food Trust and the Philadelphia Health Management Corporation. (2006). Food Geography: How Food Access Affects Diet and Health. Available at http://www.thefoodtrust.org/pdf/Food%20Geography%20Final.pdf (accessed May 8, 2010).
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. (2009, November). Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Announces Entrepreneurial Program to Feed City’s Hungry. Available at https://www.pennsylvaniahorticulturalsociety.org/aboutus/09PHShungry.htm (accessed May 8, 2010).
Vitiello, D., and M. Nairn. (2009, November). Community Gardening in Philadephia: 2008 Harvest Report. Available at http://sites.google.com/site/harvestreportsite/philadelphia-report (accessed May 8, 2010).
Vitiello, D., and M. Nairn. (2009/10). Lush Lots: Everyday Urban Agriculture: From Community Gardening to Community Food Security. Business Design Review, Fall/Winter. Available at http://gsd.harvard.edu/research/publications/hdm/current/31.NairnVitiello.pdf (accessed May 8, 2010).