In a city where pools are open for only a few weeks out of the summer and recreation centers aren’t providing adequate activity for kids, there is a sense of dread and uneasiness. Over the past two summers, bored and frustrated teens have expressed themselves in the form of flash mobs, descending on the Center City and South Street areas, causing mayhem without regard for anyone else.
On a small farm in the West Poplar section of Philadelphia, a group of teens are showing not all teens are interested in spending their summers restlessly roaming the streets but instead being productive citizens of society.
Teens 4 Good is a youth-led urban agricultural business and job training program, which seeks to foster creativity through converting negative, blighted vacant lots into positive urban green spaces to add beauty to the neighborhood.
The teens work in any one of the community farms over a period of six weeks, learning horticulture and landscaping skills while also learning business skills. Teens 4 Goods sells the foods it plants and harvests to local restaurants and stores in the community. The group also donates 20 percent of the produce to food cupboards in neighborhood.
The program currently has six farm locations including Schuylkill River Valley, West Philadelphia and West Poplar, which is the first and oldest location.
Executive Director Jamie McKnight and community organizer Henry Nwalipanjea both worked with a non-profit organization in the area, and noticing the amount of vacant lots in the area, they decided to use one for a community garden.
There are 40,000 vacant lots throughout the city, mainly in low-income areas, the City of Philadelphia’s website stated.
“These things sort of happen in waves,” said Aviva Asher, farm manager for the Eighth and Poplar location. “If this was a neighborhood that had a lot of industry and factories like the one across the street, when the factories move out what’s left is abandonment. The city doesn’t hold anyone accountable and we end up with abandoned buildings and lots. ”
A educational facet of the vacant lot turned farm into a high tunnel structure. High tunnels are unheated, plastic-covered structures, which provide an intermediate level of environmental protection and control compared to open field conditions and heated greenhouses. While greenhouse structures may be covered with glass or double-layered plastic, high tunnels are usually covered with a single layer of plastic.
High tunnels allow farmers to manipulate the conditions in which the crops are grown. Heat can be provided for protection on cold nights or used to extend the season longer for vegetables in high demand, providing nutritious foods all year long.
“People compare our cultural zones to our high tunnel,” said Asher. “So if we’re in Philly here, in our high tunnel it’s North Carolina. So we get to grow here what’s growing in North Carolina.”
Having a farm in the city has many environmental benefits. Growing food locally creates less pollution since the food is harvested and sold here and is not trekked in from miles away. The farm also grows the crops organically without using pesticides or fertilizers.
Teens 4 Good promotes healthy lifestyles by eating and cooking with fresh vegetables grown by the teens themselves. The teens produce collard greens, kale, cabbage, cucumbers, peppers and much more that they sell at the weekly farmers’ market. Understanding the need for fresh foods in the community, the market sells its produce at affordable prices and accepts EBT cards and senior vouchers.
Monica Crippens, a frequent visitor and buyer at the farmers’ market, stumbled upon the program at a health fair and a year later she continues to buy her produce from them.
“I looked at their literature and I listened to their mission and thought it was worthwhile participating in,” said Crippens, who is also a gardener. “Something like this really educates the children and teaches them a beneficial skill.”
The program here is definitely one of a kind, providing agricultural recreation and work to inner-city youths and fresh fruits and veggies to those who may not have been able to afford them or have access to them.
Students from Young Scholars Charter School just down the street will lend a hand on the farm, helping to expand its outdoor kitchen area.
“Just in the last two years, a lot has changed on the farm–the high tunnel, the irrigation system–and it’s only going to get better as we move forward.”