Across from Fisher Park, the sound of a bass guitar and the smell of barbecue fill the air. Attendees of the second annual Family Health and Safety Festival slowly mill back and forth through the booths set up along both sides of West Spencer Street. Some stop and chat with the volunteers sitting behind the fold-up tables, while others barely give a curious glace as they walk towards the food at the end of the street.
Each booth represents a organization that is somehow linked to the Olney community and surrounding neighborhoods. At one, two clowns make balloon animals and paint the faces of children and free-spirited adults alike. Another provides free dental checkups to all who are willing.
Tucked near the rear of the event, along a path leading deeper into the park, Armond Rice stands behind a booth packed full of vegetables for sale. He is selling produce grown from the community garden. Business had obviously been good.
“This is nothing, you should have seen how much we had on here earlier,” he says with satisfaction.
Yet it wasn’t the money that got him smiling. It came from the satisfaction felt from having contributed to his neighbor’s health and well being. He believes community gardens can remedy the lack of grocery and produce stores in the city and bring other communities together.
“Well, of course, you are going to have fresh produce, and that is essential. And then, the urban neighborhoods do not have accessibility to fresh produce. If you have your own garden then you know during the summer months, at least, you know what you can get. So, it is great. And it is cost effective, too. A pack of seeds may run you a dollar, but you can get meals for weeks from one pack of seeds. So, you can’t lose. It is a win-win situation.”
In a city that was once named by Men’s Health as the fattest in the United States, garden fresh produce is an essential part of a healthy diet that alludes many urban families due to a lack a grocery stores in the area. Sometimes, even when it is available, produce is just too expensive for people to afford.
“We tried to sell some of them [vegetables] to the neighbors. We sold a lot; people were happy. We sold them at a fraction of the cost, really. What people normally don’t pay. I think we did good.”
Rice is a member of the Roots Community Garden in Fisher Park as well as long-time resident of Olney. The garden boasts a membership of about 30 people, all of whom are responsible for a four-by-eight foot-plot. Each plot costs $20. The garden has been in existence for six years now and has grown in popularity among members in the community.
“There is a waiting list now, to tell you the truth,” says Rice. “But usually one or two opens up during the year.”
Not only does the garden provide those who use it with a means to grow produce of their choosing, Rice also believes it creates a sense of solidarity within the community. “We all kind of take care of it. It is a community crop garden, I guess you could call it,” says Rice. “It works out well. It brings the neighbors together. And we have meetings, and we have parties, and it is just fun.”
Rice thinks the garden is responsible for not only bringing the community closer together but also improving Fisher Park itself.
“Having the garden started an organization here. An organization at the park, and when that happened they were able to get grants, they were able to get money and it made the park better. They put in courts, tennis courts, basketball courts,” he says.
“They made improvements by tearing down old trees, planting new trees. They made renovations to the walls around the building. And has made this a safer place for people to come to. And people are using it more.”
By creating cheap food alternatives as well as bringing residents together, community gardens may be the answer for other neighborhoods throughout the city. Philadelphia is littered with the decaying remains of its industrialized past. These old factories and warehouses stand on hundreds of acres of land that could be converted into parks and gardens.
To those who don’t think that a community garden can bring positive benefits for urban neighborhoods, they need not look further than Roots. The group won second place in the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s annual garden contest.
“It has done a lot to bring the neighborhood together,” Rice says. He hopes it will inspire residents in other neighborhoods do the same.