They don’t look like your typical farmers; they’re young, dressed in sneakers and jeans, but the students working out at the lot at 11th and York streets are doing their best at turning the small plot of land into a permanent resource for the community.
Students from all over Philadelphia, including Temple University, have formed Philadelphia Urban Creators or PUC. The youth-run organization has taken on the task of building farms in urban areas so communities with no access to fresh produce can grow their own. The farm’s goal is to act not only as a source of nutrition but to provide something positive for local kids to be a part of.
“What we’ve tried to do is talk with residents and talk with kids in the area about what are the biggest issues they face on a daily basis,” said Alex Epstein, PUC’s co-founder and Temple University senior.
“What they’ve identified was kind of a lack of affordable food, healthy food, unemployment rate, violence and drugs, and abandoned properties,” he said. “We tried to figure out what one thing we could do, that would address all of these problems at once and that is where the idea of the farm came into play.”
In Fast Food: Oppression Through Nutrition, Andrea Freeman writes, “Fast food has become a major source of nutrition in low-income, urban neighborhoods across the United States. Although some social and cultural factors account for fast food’s overwhelming popularity…each play a significant role in denying inner-city people of color access to healthy food”
According to the 2009 census, the average income for Philadelphia households is around $38,000 whereas those in Fairhill have an average income of about $18,000. This extreme difference in the quality of life in this area makes proper nutrition even more necessary.
PUC was born after a group of local college and high school students took a service trip to New Orleans to support the initiatives of Lower Ninth Ward residents after Hurricane Katrina. Tiye Jones, who at the time was a sophomore at Temple University, was among those who came along.
“Alex was bringing people to New Orleans to do some service work and I thought ‘Oh let me just go over winter break that will be fun, a little service trip, and go help clean up some Katrina stuff,” she said. “…It changed my entire life.”
She wasn’t alone. Since then, other high schools in Philadelphia have joined the organization. They include students from Elverson Military Academy, Crossroads Academy, A.P. Randolph Academy and the 8 high schools affiliated with the Sankofa Rights of Passage Program, a program aimed at educating African American youths about respect and different cultures.
“We want to build a safe space within the community that fosters a sense of pride and a sense of control in a terrible economic system and a terrible financial system,” Jones said.
The city owns the land the farm is built on, but The Village of Arts & Humanities, a grassroots, has the deed to it. PUC has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Village that states that the organization can use the land as long as they maintain it. And these students do everything that they can to ensure they hold up their end of the deal.
Nearly every week, Epstein, Jones and other Temple students, come to the lot to clean and plant. On this particularly cold Friday however, the farm was finally getting a greenhouse thanks to a partnership with A. Philip Randolph’s Career Academy. With the senior shop class taking the helm in building, it gives all involved a sense of empowerment.
“It feels good,” Jeffery Eldrige, a member of the shop class, said. “Everything is going according to plan.”
The goal, the students say, is ever changing. First it was to build a farm and then it was to teach the community about being self-sustaining. “I think when you have a fluid project like this that involves nature and community the ideas of the ultimate goal is always changing,” Jones said. With this type of attitude the students will never be satisfied with their work and will continue to try and do good in different ways and it looks like they’re okay with that.