Social Issues: Philadelphia Community Gardens Have Impact Beyond Food

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Despite significant hunger rates and food insecurity throughout the city of Philadelphia, Suku John, executive director of East Park Revitalization Alliance (EPRA) and member of The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities (PCAC), emphasized that community gardens do not have enough power to solve this comprehensive scale problem independently.

“There are not nearly enough gardens in Philly to grow enough food to address the hunger issue meaningfully, but they provide valuable teaching tools as a way to help people reconnect to food and what it takes to grow food,” John said.

However, this does not mean there aren’t several other benefits from implementing community gardens into communities like Strawberry Mansion, where EPRA focuses its efforts.

John explained that many vacant lots are being turned into community gardens throughout Philadelphia to work toward lowering hunger rates and strengthening community ties.

Philadelphia has been battling a hunger crisis for years throughout numerous Black and brown communities. According to The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities, before COVID-19 more than one in every three homeowners in Philadelphia did not have the funds to purchase basic groceries. As the pandemic worsened, so did this problem. Several local organizations feel that filling vacant land with community gardens has numerous benefits for neighborhoods. 

John and his team members help local families grow and harvest natural foods to assist them in having accessible, healthy food and lowering the amount of money spent on food each year.

“We’ve had families tell us that their plot in our garden has helped them reduce their annual grocery bill anywhere from $300 to $600,” John said.

The EPRA is a nonprofit organization that develops gardens and works toward building a healthy and robust community in Strawberry Mansion. The EPRA produces a number of events for community members to experience garden work.

Aside from the actual food, ERPA sees other benefits from introducing community gardens into neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion.

According to John, replacing vacant lots with green space increases accessibility to healthy food while simultaneously providing an outlet for community bonding. EPRA’s gardens in Strawberry Mansion host several programs for children, teens, and adults. Ranging in educational garden techniques, to culinary programs, to family plotting, and more.

“We repurpose some vacant lots as community gardens or food growing spaces, either for youth programs or children’s programs or even we have a community garden for adults,” John said. 

Another local, nonprofit organization Urbanstead runs numerous community gardens throughout Philadelphia. Through several programming events, Urbanstead works toward developing youth in a progressive, beneficial way to help better their current and future lives. Ranging in ages from 5 to 25, Urbanstead teaches kids and young adults about agricultural techniques while simultaneously developing crucial career skills.

Within the past year, Urbanstead has begun merging with its longtime partner Cloud 9 Rooftop Farm. Through community-led farming, training, and educational programming, Cloud 9 seeks out rooftop spaces and works toward converting them into beneficial agricultural areas.

Shannon Matthews manages one of Urbanstead’s farm sites located on 17th and Ridge streets in Francisville. 

“Gardening is such a great thing, because any experience level can work together, there’s always more to learn and there’s so much that you can offer even if you have very little experience,” Matthews said. “It’s a great way of bringing people together and building confidence to make change.”

Matthews noted the programs Urbanstead runs, including educational programs on agriculture and food, local internships working with the farms programming, and setting up farmers markets to bring fresh produce to local communities.

“Our programming is focused on growing food and learning about our food system because a lot of people need that from this particular neighborhood,” Matthews said.

She works closely with youth from 16 to 21 years old, emphasizing how community gardens go beyond food aspects and have numerous mental health benefits for its workers, visitors, and volunteers.

“Even if that wasn’t our focus on paper, teen mental health is one of the biggest take-aways I have seen in the young people I work with,” Matthew said. “Just like having a place to go outside and feel like you can breathe and be yourself.”

John also has seen the EPRA’S garden programs have significant, positive effects on a neighborhood’s children. The community gardens allow the kids to become familiar with the earth and its natural resources.

“These same kids who at first don’t want to stick their hands in the soil, a year or two later will be pulling carrots out of the ground and not even wash them off,” John said. “They will just literally knock the soil off of it and chomp on it because they know it’s going to taste that sweet.”

Cloud 9 Executive Director Rania Campbell-Bussiere discussed the cheerful impact gardens have on the environment. Besides planting trees citywide, she touched on programs they have to reduce trash on the streets.

“We have a volunteer event that picks up trash once a week to help keep the green stormwater infrastructure from getting clogged when it rains,” Campbell-Bussiere said.

Matthews and John both believe giving teens from underprivileged neighborhoods an outlet to positively impact themselves and their communities is a massive benefit of community gardens.

“It is my belief that more than actually making a meaningful impact in the hunger problem, in terms of providing food on the table,” Johns said, “I think of community gardens as a teaching tool, as a way to help people reconnect to food, and what it takes to grow food.” 

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