The City Harvest Program, founded by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, provides fresh produce to residents in need. The program, which is in its seventh year, was started by local gardeners who wanted to share the fruits — and vegetables — of their labor.
Over the past seven years, PHS estimates that they have grown more than 200,000 pounds of food in the 45 gardens that participate in the program. In addition to donating food to low-income families, City Harvest also prides itself on providing nutrition education to ensure that the recipients are properly preparing healthy meals.
Eileen Gallagher, the Community Garden Project Manager for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), said that gardeners would had such a large surplus of food that they decided to start giving back to their community.
“They would grow so much food, and have so many tomatoes, that you simply can’t eat another tomato,” Gallagher said. “We had a lot of gardeners asking if there was some way we could formalize a distribution process.”
Since it’s inception in 1827, the PHS has been known for their ability to bring communities together. Although the City Harvest program is certainly an extension of that, in this case the community organized itself. However, as the program expanded, it became necessary to partner with other organizations such as SHARE (the Self Help and Resource Exchange) who facilitates donations to food cupboards.
“Before you start a project, you make sure everyone is invested and understands the goal,” Gallagher said. “Helping people reach that vision is just really amazing, knowing how that changes a neighborhood and people’s perspectives.”
The PHS also has a partnership with the Philadelphia Prison System, who had been setting up their own horticultural program anyway. Inmates get the chance to grow seedlings that eventually becomes produce to be donated to those in need around the city. These inmates, who are generally not maximum security prisoners, enroll in a six to eight week training program called Roots to Re-Entry where they learn how to grow produce from start to finish.
“It just came at the right time. It was so synergistic,” said Gallagher. “[They] now understand how to cook better, how to combine vegetables and starches, and that program has totally expanded.”
Gallagher explained that after they are released, some inmates go through work release and are hired by contractors and gardeners in the community due to their newly acquired skill set.
These selected inmates learn how to grow food in raised beds, how to manage landscapes, and take nutrition classes. Once the seedlings are ready to be planted, they are transferred to local gardens where they will grow and blossom to their fullest extent. Not only do the inmates learn how to grow and prepare food, they learn the benefit of giving back.
“They feel such a sense of community [that] they have been able to give back in this way,” Gallagher said.
One of the sites where Roots to Re-Entry plants is Powelton Village’s Summer Winter Community Garden, founded in 1976. An active supporter of the City Harvest program for the last five years, the Summer Winter Garden has several plots set aside for the growth of fresh food. Volunteers at the garden help maintain the plots in order to make sure that the produce is being well taken care of.
Joe Revlock, the Volunteer Coordinator and one of the founders of the garden said that at first, the gardeners did not want to partake in helping to maintain the plot. “When [the program] started I had a lot of gardeners with an attitude, who really didn’t want to participate.”
However, that has since changed. Revlock said that gardeners now not only want their own individual plot but also want to help take an active part in the City Harvest plot in order to give back.
“Now it’s blossomed into something a lot more productive,” said Revlock. “It’s a really nice blending of what community gardening is about.”
Volunteers and City Harvest officials alike help maintain the plots by watering the produce, removing any weeds, and then delivering the food to their local cupboard, the Ralston Mercy-Douglass House located at 38th and Market Street. The Ralston House is an independent living arrangement housing more than 50 low-income senior citizens.
Revlock estimates that each season, the Summer Winter Garden provides between 300 and 400 pounds of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, basil, beans, chard and green and red peppers to the Ralston House. “It’s really become a wonderful [thing],” Revlock said. “The variety and diversity is amazing.”
City Harvest has donated more than 20,000 pounds of produce each year, helping to feed approximately 1,000 needy families per week during the growing season.
“I think it is so unique and beneficial,” Gallagher said. “It affects their kids too, so sometimes you can’t even know how far [the benefits] reach.”