The community garden at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships has been working to engage people in the Mantua community through urban gardening to begin addressing food insecurity in the area.
The garden was formed in 2014 in partnership with Trellis for Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that provides services and programs for youth of all ages to support the sustainable upward growth of communities and the planet. After a period of inactivity, Trellis for Tomorrow reached out to Drexel University student organizations and “revamped the effort,” said Madi Rockett, the president of Drexel Urban Growers (DUG), the organization that maintains the community garden at 35th Street and Spring Garden Avenue.
DUG has been active since March 2020 and has harvested over 850 pounds of food since then. Any food not given over the fence to residents is donated to the Powelton Community Fridge, Rockett explained.
The organization aims to strengthen relationships between Drexel students and community residents, educate people on how to garden, and make fresh organic produce more accessible as a way to address hunger and food insecurity.
The garden has been used as an opportunity for community building as well as a conduit to start conversations with residents on what exactly a food desert and food insecurity is, said John Kirby, the executive director of the Dornsife Center.
“We talk about what foods are accessible in the neighborhood and ask, ‘Do you see these foods in your local stores? How far do you go to get these items? Would it be more convenient if these items were available in your neighborhood?’ to start giving shape to what it means to be in a food desert and not have those things accessible to you or even affordable,” Kirby said. “Maybe they can be physically accessed but they can’t be financially accessed.”
DUG held its first event on Nov. 6 titled Reduce, Reuse, Repot. Aimed to help people start at-home gardens, attendees brought old recyclable containers and the garden provided materials to paint the containers, soil, rocks for drainage, fertilizer, and herb and flower seeds. DUG hopes to scale the initiative to help community members grow vegetables or make window sill gardens at future events.
DUG also hosted an event on Nov. 13, Painting for Peace, in partnership with Mantua Worldwide Community, an organization that focuses on promoting public health, the arts and environmental sustainability, to kick start DUG’s youth programming.
For DUG, the event was a space for people to get to know one another, while Mantua Worldwide aimed to spark conversation around gun violence through art, Rockett explained.
“We want to spread the message of peace, we want to become as educated as we can, to become leaders so we can change the fabric of this world,” said Gweny Love, the founder of Mantua Worldwide Community, during the event as attendees painted. “In order to create any change when we talk about social responsibility, the change first comes with being able to envision in our minds a different type of world.”
Carolotta Stafford, 44, came to the event with her 7-year-old nephew to encourage his creativity. She felt the event was needed in the community because of the increase in violence in local communities.
“Some of the young people that I work with have experienced such great loss with cousins, brothers, friends, or other family members at levels that when I was a kid that was unheard of to have so many of my peers or people I may know from the neighborhood die,” said Stafford who volunteers as a reading captain with Read by 4th. “Yes, violence was still around but some of these kids go to school and come back the next day and their friends are gone.”
People in the community have expressed that hands-on activities are needed for young people to give them an “opportunity to see they can do different things,” in addition to securing quality education, access to jobs, adequate housing and food, which affect crime rates, Stafford said.
“One of the tactics has been to create programming for our young people so they have alternatives to being on the streets or hanging out with people who may not be good influences,” Stafford said.
Caleb Pope, 17, a student at CAPA High School who grew up in Mantua, said he enjoyed painting during the event and thinks art-related events are a good way to engage young adults.
“Especially when we’re all doing it in the same environment you kind of see where everybody’s head is,” Pope said.
DUG is planning to start a monthly garden workshop for kids K-12 and have local high schoolers volunteer and serve as co-leaders. The hope is for teenagers to eventually have the ability to run garden programming for children in the Mantua community.
A core mission of DUG is to provide nutrition education to the community.
“We’re figuring out how DUG can advocate for relevant public policy that’s related to food insecurity as well as overall social and economic social justice,” Rockett said.
The group wants to hear what people in Mantua are interested in learning about and “meet them where they are at,” Rockett added. Residents have expressed interest in alternative gardening they can do in their homes such as hydroponics, a form of gardening that uses no soil. DUGs mission is for residents to use what they learn to start their own gardens.
“It’s definitely, by all means, not a solution to food insecurity but it gives people agency to build resilience within their own families and neighborhood through garden education,” Rockett said.
“It’s really nice to see that as a community we can come together and help people grow food on their own without having to rely on outside sources or institutions that they may not trust,” added Aaliyah Greenman, the vice president of Drexel Urban Growers.
One of the goals for the garden is to create a shared leadership model, so it is not only reliant on Drexel students, Kirby said.
“You may have one group of students for four years that are really into an idea and that group can leave,” Kirby added. “So if we really have a shared leadership model we can create a sense of sustainability.”
Ultimately, DUG hopes to use youth education as a way to enact social change.
“They’ll be learning to garden then teaching future generations and their kids how to garden, setting up a system of educating one another,” Rockett said.
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