Orchards and gardens are not common sights usually seen in the city, but the Philadelphia Orchard Project is hoping to populate the area with enough to help impoverish families eat nutritiously and combat common health problems caused by poor eating habits.
POP is non-profit organization started in 2007 that creates orchards in under-privileged areas of Philadelphia in collaboration with other local non-profit organizations. Once an orchard is up and running, POP hands over all decisions and upkeep to these local non-profit organizations but continues to supply long-term support.
“Philadelphia has 60,000 chronically hungry children,” Paul Glover, creator of POP, said. He followed that number with Philadelphia has 40,000 vacant lots. “The highest and best use of vacant land is not condos but fresh fruit and green jobs.”
The Census Bureau, in the 2006-2008 survey, estimated that 24.3 percent of Philadelphia’s population was below the poverty level. In 2008, it was estimated there were 1,447,395 people in Philadelphia, meaning that approximately 351,716 people fall into that percentage of below poverty.
“The idea is to empower neighborhoods,” Phil Forsyth, the POP director, said. “The simple goal is to plant orchards.”
Each orchard helps the community by providing organic produce at little to no cost to the community.
“Most people can’t afford to shop at farmers markets and Whole Foods,” Forsyth said. By providing organic produce, POP and the orchards help educate and nourish the community.
Woodford Children’s Orchard in Strawberry Mansion is taking education beyond healthy eating though. At this orchard, children are invited to learn about the produce and help it grow.
“We’re able to teach them about nutrition and gardening and give them a real good education on how to grow food,” Jacob Bortman, Woodford Children’s Orchard caretaker, said. “It’s important in this neighborhood because there’s almost an epidemic of obesity and diabetes and other nutritionally related problems.”
The Woodford Children’s Orchard is at Woodford Mansion, located at 33rd and Dauphin Streets. Woodford Mansion was built in 1756 and, according to records at the mansion, had an orchard on the property in the Colonial era.
“When [East Park Revitalization Alliance] learned about that they… collaborated with Woodford Mansion, Fairmount Park Commission, Philadelphia Orchard Project, and a lot of people from the Philadelphia community to get a new orchard planted in 2008,” Bortman said. “The reason that we did that is it gives good exposure to the community to where food comes from. The neighborhood’s able to see that it takes work.”
The EPRA opened the orchard on November 8, 2008, and now hosts after-school programs and summer programs for children. Bortman estimates that during the school year the orchard works with about 30 children and during the summer has about 70 children.
“I’m fortunate that I get to work with these children, they come out after school and both in this orchard and EPRA’s two other gardens,” Bortman said. “To see the children wonder at picking a fresh strawberry and eating it and to walk back and forth with them with a bag of fruit in their hands and they just eat it and seem so happy and excited about the world.”
The two other gardens are located along 33rd Street and Ridge Avenue and are vegetable gardens instead of fruit.
The largest crop this year, so far, has been the strawberries at Woodford Children’s Orchard.
Forsyth estimates that at Woodford the group has been picking at least 10 pounds of strawberries over the last month to month and a half.
“We had to tell them to only pick the red ones,” Gerry Francis, the docent of Woodford Mansion, said. He said that picking became a community event and that while they were picking, he would set up his grill and the children and volunteers would get free food.
As part of the after-school program, there is a center in Fairmount Park just past Diamond Street. If the students are not in the gardens they are learning in the center.
“I spent a lot of time here with myself and volunteers picking strawberries,” Bortman said. “I’d take them to the after-school program, just a big bowl of washed strawberries, and the kids would chow down on them.”
There were so many strawberries picked, EPRA was also able to distribute bags of strawberries to volunteers and people active in the community.
The children have taken to the orchard and gardens so well after picking and enjoying the strawberries, they have started looking for more fruit that is ready to be plucked.
While pointing out a cherry tree, Bortman said, “We might have had two to three pounds of cherries this year that the kids, while they were out here picking strawberries, they discovered [the cherries].
There were very excited to pull off the cherries that were growing lower on the tree and eat them right from the tree. There was one of the kids that started ‘what’s this?’ and it clicked that you know were picking strawberries and they’re good to eat and so maybe what’s on this tree would be good to eat too.”
Woodford Children’s Orchard is looking to the future, even though it prides themselves on its past.
There are several peach trees in the orchard, and although too young to produce fruit, they anticipate an abundance of peaches in years to come.
“There’s hope for the future that we could provide hundreds of pounds of food for the community,” Bortman said.
The group is also looking to expand the orchard now that funding has become available.
“They just got a $15,000 grant,” Glover said.
“Our hope for the future is that we can start a kitchen garden,” Bortman said. “We’ll start some beds to demonstrate here at the Woodford Mansion site what might have been grown in a Colonial era garden and to, kind of, round out the experience here.”
While the orchard offers a serene place that takes the children outside the city, Bortman said they had trouble in the beginning with the children not caring for the orchard and gardens. He said that now it has become better though, the children have taken an interest and started treating the area as their own space. There is also a problem on people around the area littering though.
“It’s a complicated neighborhood,” Francis said.
For more information on Woodford Children’s Orchard or Woodford Mansion, visit www.woodfordmansion.org.