On any morning, several Germantown area residents can be found with hoe in hand, or on their knees, planting fruits and vegetables in garden plots they rent from Awbury Arboretum. They are members of the Awbury Community Garden Club which is in charge of the approximately 51 regular plots and 10 raised plots. Portions of the harvest from Awbury Community Gardens is given to the City Harvest program, which provides fresh produce to food cupboards around Philadelphia.
Awbury Community Gardens is one of many community gardens throughout the city that voluntarily grows garden crops. Eldridge Ragsdale, coordinator for the Awbury Garden Club, is in charge of maintaining the 10 to 20 designated City Harvest plots. He explained that there are community garden plots available for neighbor residents to raise foods for their own use; there are also City Harvest plots. “City Harvest gives us plants to plant for growing season…at the end of the growing season we harvest the crop and give it to the food cupboard,” said Ragsdale.
Awbury Community Gardens volunteered to be part of the City Harvest garden program. Ragsdale said that the crops they are growing are kale, collards, broccoli, onions, corn and potatoes. The garden club is assigned to provide food to the food cupboard at the Lonnie Young Recreation Center at 1100 E. Chelten Ave. All of the food is donated through City Harvest, which coordinates with SHARE, a non-profit network that distributes the donated vegetables to the area food cupboard.
Lillian Ritter, another coordinator at Awbury Community Garden club said, “We do the planting, the harvesting, the cleaning, the packaging, the weighing, and turning the food into the lady that picks it up.” Ritter believes strongly that the City Harvest program helps her community. “[It] is a great help to senior citizens and other people that can’t grow, that don’t have land to grow…they need the produce that we grow…and some of them can’t afford to buy it,” said Ritter.
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) has a program called Philadelphia Green.
They partner with community groups, businesses, and the government to transform urban spaces to be greener. PHS also began City Harvest in 2006. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society web site reports that over 10,000 people per week rely on food cupboards in Philadelphia.
As part of City Harvest, prison inmates grow the vegetable seedlings from seeds up to transplant size. The seedlings are then distributed to the gardens where they are planted, and tenderly nurtured by volunteer gardeners until harvested and donated back again.
“City Harvest is a partnership with SHARE, HPC which is the health promotion council, Philadelphia prisons, and about 45 community gardens…there are four major partners including Philadelphia Green and PHS,” said Eileen Gallagher, PHS/Philadelphia Green Project Manger.
Gallagher said that the program started when gardeners came to PHS and said that they were looking for an organized way to donate left over fresh produce to somebody. “There was all this extra food in gardens…[PHS] started making the links to other partners and received specific funding and created…City Harvest,” said Gallagher. “The vegetables that go to these food cupboards are grown with organic practices, and in these populations it’s very difficult for them to first purchase this…and second…they need better nutrition than opening a box of macaroni or eating canned vegetables – at most food cupboards that’s what’s available.”
According to Gallagher, Awbury Community Garden Club donated 378 pounds of fresh food for 2009, which was given to the food cupboard. This year begins the second year donating to the Lonnie Recreation Center food cupboard.
Anita Hunt, from East Germantown, donates her time and drives her truck to Awbury Arboretum three days a week to pick up the donated harvest. She says that the recent economic downturn has had an effect on the food cupboard. “I’ve been doing it for 15 years, and when I first started doing it, it may have been like 15 families… I have up to, now, a month, about 100 families,” said Hunt.
Hunt believes in helping out her neighborhood. “The community working together can make a difference in the community itself, and these are community people from East Germantown that’s working the garden, working in conjunction with me…we’re helping people to eat better instead of eating fast foods,” said Hunt.
Nutrition education is also part of the food cupboard program. Hunt described how a nutritionist comes once a month to do a cooking demonstration, teaching how to cook healthy up to 30 people every month starting at the end of June. The harvest begins as early as late May and goes to October.
Hunt said SHARE oversees the food cupboard program and controls the Feed the Hungry program, a state mandated program that feeds the hungry in different neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
Eloise McBride, Director/Volunteer Coordinator for SHARE explains that SHARE receives state funding and it is only in the summer that people receive the donated fresh vegetables. McBride spoke of Germantown, “There’s just Lonnie Young at the moment…that’s dealing with the urban farmers, we [match] the food cupboards to the urban farmers in their area.”
McBride sees more people coming to food cupboards and there is a shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables in food cupboards. “Through our program we service the food in a community and all that is non-perishable food, so it is canned items,” said McBride. “We are not getting a lot of fresh stuff, this is one way of moving the fresh produce into the food cupboards.”
Roscoe Williams is the newly elected president of the Awbury Community Garden Club. He has tended a garden for a number of years along with his wife. He sees the garden as a place where the community can come together, “To discuss ideas, encourage one another, become creative in the decoration and maintenance…of the garden…share, it’s a great thing to do.”
Williams believes more people should get involved gardens. He would like to see more empty land put to use. Williams said, “If there’s any property that’s not currently being developed, or rarely used until the city or the owner decides to develop it… there shouldn’t be any wasted or empty land laying around, there’s too much need for it.”
“They could make a garden out of it,” said Williams.