Sharswood: Sanctuary Farm Fights Community Hunger with Urban Agriculture

Brewerytown resident Layla Woodard made her way through the concrete blocks of her neighborhood one late September afternoon to pick up fresh produce from the leafy terrain of Sanctuary Farm’s market at 22nd Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. At the farm stand, there were vegetables galore — tomatoes, arugula, cabbage, okra, and collards — all grown just down the street from Woodard’s home.

“It’s fresh and they picked it this morning, as opposed to my vegetables coming from California or Mexico,” she said.  

Every Tuesday and Thursdays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sanctuary Farm sells fresh fruits and vegetables to the residents of Brewerytown, Sharswood, and the surrounding neighborhoods. The farm is a form of urban agriculture where volunteers and paid staff work rows of seasonal vegetables to make sure fresh and affordable produce are available in the neighborhood all year long.

Andrea Vettori founded the Sanctuary Farm in 2017. As a nurse practitioner, she realized something needed to be done about the access to fruits and vegetables in the neighborhood. Her patients were often affected by diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity but had very limited access to fresh produce. 

“It grew really frustrating for me to treat patients and do education around healthy diets knowing they didn’t have access to that,” Vettori said. 

She started a farm on Berks Street on a plot of land that she received from the Land Bank, an initiative of the City of Philadelphia that acquires abandoned lots and redistributes them to homeowners, businesses, and community organizations. After applying for a grant from the Public Health Management Corporation and the Sisters of Mercy, Vettori reached out to volunteers who were willing to help at the farm. 

Today, the Sanctuary Farm is in full bloom. Over the years it expanded to three different locations: 24th and West Berks streets, 22nd Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, and 1703 N. Crosky St.

The farm’s partners include Villanova University, Drexel University, Project Home, the Health Promotion Council, and Habitat for Humanity, who provide financial and in-kind support for raising crops and selling them to people.

“It’s very valuable, you see what you’re gonna eat and it encourages you to eat better and appreciate fresh vegetables,” said Woodard, “It’s needed. Otherwise, the alternative is to go to the supermarket where the costs are higher.”

According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal project, Pennsylvania’s largest food insecure county is Philadelphia. That means around one in five people in Philadelphia don’t have enough healthy food to eat. 

Sanctuary Farm’s goal is not just to provide access to healthy food but affordable food as well. Produce from the farm costs customers around a dollar per pound.

SNAP dollars have not kept up with the increase of price for vegetables,” said Lester Cohen, a volunteer. “If people want enough calories to live, they need high fat, cheap food. Between calories to live and vegetables to be healthy, you’re gonna choose calories to live.” 

The Sanctuary Farm doesn’t just want to change habits, it also wants to change mindsets. Vettori created Veggie Scripts, an education program hosted at the Stephen Klein Wellness Center and Marie Howard Health Center to teach local children the importance of consuming healthy foods and being mindful about it. 

“Veggie Scripts is a program that we started our first year,” Vettori said. “Rather than giving a prescription for medication they get a prescription they can redeem for healthy produce.” 

The Sanctuary Farm has a rewards program for those who attend classes. If residents take nutrition classes, they get free vegetables from the farm’s stands.

The Sanctuary Farm has also helped many neighbors set up their own gardens. 

“There was one woman that really wanted to plant and she was elderly,” Vettori said. “I said, ‘Why don’t we make you a raised bed?’ So we installed that for her, put some compost in it for her and some seedlings.”

Dorothy Butler, an occasional customer, said the farm is changing generational mindsets and healing bad habits.

“I’m a block captain, and we’re getting ready to start our children farming,” she said. “This way I help my family eat better, and they will help their families eat better when they grow up.” 

Sanctuary Farm doesn’t want to stop there. Vettori is constantly looking for opportunities to expand what they offer. 

“We’re waiting [for] word on [a] grant for Pennsylvania State Department of Agriculture that would allow us to put up a greenhouse which would help us to grow all season long,” she said. “We needed another piece of property to put up the greenhouse, so we’re working with the Land Bank to transfer a previously abandoned lot into our name.” 

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