People in Philadelphia are hungry. In fact, Feeding America reported that 15.8% of Philadelphia citizens were food insecure in 2020.
The struggle to secure a meal in a city like Philadelphia isn’t a new topic for either citizens encumbered or those who watch from the sidelines. The People’s Kitchen, a free restaurant model, in Southwest Philadelphia was established in 2020 to address this growing need to fight food insecurity by offering free meals from their restaurant front.
The People’s Kitchen is located on 9th and Ellsworth streets, and an important contributor to the kitchen is not only their cooking, but also their farms that occupy abandoned lots sprinkled across Southwest Philadelphia.
In the city, there are over 40,000 vacant lots, and in taking advantage this the People’s Kitchen introduced guerilla gardening. The kitchen grows free produce for community members on lots that would have been otherwise remained malignant to community prosperity.
“We’re farming on 21 lots,” Benjamin Miller, founder, gardener, and chef for the kitchen, said. “They’re all tax delinquent, vacant lots.”
Community members like Nyoca Carr, who has lived on 61st Street in Southwest Philadelphia for over 30 years, appreciate and use the fruits and vegetables planted by the People’s Kitchen.
“Especially with the gardens,” she said. “It’s beautiful.” Neighbors to the lots are able to take food as they please. Carr highlighted the watermelon, corn, and other vegetables she personally harvested from the garden nearest to her home this past season.
A free restaurant partially supported by community gardens seems ingenious, but this past summer their community gardens faced a major obstacle, the threat of sheriff sale.
Help from the Working Families Party
The downside of revitalizing lots that aren’t owned by the organization was the looming threat of losing the land.
Beginning with the COVID-19 pandemic, sheriff sales started conducting virtually opening the auction to national bidders, Miller explained. Further perpetuating the disparities in wealth in the city by allowing foreign real estate investors to purchase land for commercial or residential development.
“We want to own that land, and preserve them as a community farm in perpetuum,” said Miller.
After a GoFundMe raised over $17,500 to save The People’s Kitchen gardens from sheriff sale in the summer of 2022, the City of Philadelphia has developed a fruitful method of maintaining possession of their community gardens in collaboration with community organizations.
City Council Member Kendra Brooks and the Philadelphia City Council are working on a system to buy back land owned by the US Bank that is used for community gardens. Until then, they have established a system, although not 100% effective.
Alison Stohr, the Chief of Staff for Councilmember Kendra Brooks says that the office estimates there are about 80 lots with bank liens currently used by community members. Whether for community gardens, or as side yards.
In 1997, the city of Philadelphia sold a portfolio of land to a private entity to earn money for the city. Those liens are now owned by the US Bank. In the time since then, most of the land has been left untouched.
Linebarger Goggan Blair services the liens for US Bank, and every month they decide which lots of their roughly 2,000 lot inventory to put up for sheriff sales.
Stohr explains that Councilmember Brooks and her team goes through a long, and nonguaranteed process every month to save community use land.
It begins with a group of advocates who canvas parcels listed for sheriffs sale, and confirms that the land is being actively used. After that, a list of confirmed community use land is sent to the lien servicer, Linebarger.
“[We] ask them to hold those parcels, and then they decide which of those parcels they will hold,” Stohr said. “It’s usually some portion of the number of parcels we requested, but rarely all of the parcels that we request.”
The method does not always ensure success, but Miller say it does provide a sense of security for him until they can purchase the land for the People’s Kitchen themselves, or the city on their behalf.
As far as the city buying back the bank liens, Stohr says they don’t know the exact timeline. Within the next six months she hopes to see a breakthrough, but in reality the whole process could take up to two years.
“For us, we’re at the beginning of a long process to figure out, because there’s still a lot of questions,” she explained.
Each One, Teach One
Through the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kitchen worked to build a reputation within the community that centered themselves as a provider and teacher.
At the height of the pandemic, they were preparing upwards of 200 meals a day, five days a week. In 2022, the kitchen staff’s pots have cooled off a bit, but they’re still working. Now, making whatever they can handle three to four days out of the week.
The People’s Kitchen not only works to offset food insecurity in the area but also teaches valuable skills.
The people who work in the kitchen and gardens are volunteers from all over the city and native to the area.
Through their Instagram account and website, the Kitchen requests volunteers to work with gardeners to harvest and maintain the garden plots or with chefs to prepare food harvested from their gardens or donated by local organizations.
Arriving in the kitchen for a shift, the head chefs are always greeted with their materials for the day. For many, the joy of working for this type of restaurant is that there’s no menu, and chefs never know what to expect.
“When I onboarded, [Ben] was like, ‘Oh, it’s like Chopped every day,’” Sydney Rae Chin, a chef for the People’s Kitchen, said. “Because you don’t know what you’re going into. And for me, I love the show Chopped.”
That week, volunteers were tasked with putting watermelon harvested from one of the gardens to use. After growing all summer, the fruit was harvested by both kitchen staff and community members.
“We’re able to use every part of the plant when it goes to seed when it bulbs and we have the little flowers we can garnish with,” Miller said. “It’s feeding the kitchen with all these different stuff.”
At the end of the day, the food was given for free to anyone who stopped by. Leftovers were placed in the refrigerator located outside of the kitchen, operated by Fridges and Family, for community members to take as they pleased.
“We don’t have to impress a food critic,” Miller continued. “We don’t have to price it out, anything. Most ingredients are coming in for free, going out for free.”
Intersectionality in Food insecurity
Hunger overlaps with many other problems the city of Philadelphia faces.
A series of maps developed by the Center on Society and Health with Virginia Commonwealth University reported that people who living Center City are more likely to live 15-20 more years than people in the northern or southern areas of the city. Parts that, traditionally, have lacked resources.
Additionally, in 2019 The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society reported that communities with green spaces, such as community gardens, are more likely to experience decreased rates of violence, stress, and other life-threatening factors.
“When people’s basic needs are met, then they’re able to thrive,” said Samantha Mogil, senior manager of the Ending Hunger for Good team at Philabundance. “Then they’re able to become the people that they want to be. They can go to school, get the job that they want, be able to take care of their family in the way that they want.”
In fighting food insecurity through community gardens, other associated issues are also addressed.
“There is nowhere in our country that is not experiencing food insecurity,” Katie Milholin, director of policy and education for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said. “Every town, every zip code, every city. It’s such a simple definition [food insecurity], not knowing where your next meal is coming from. But think of the things that are causing that.”
Transportation, housing, disabilities, and a series of other complex factors contribute to the crippling, omnipresent grip that food insecurity has on Philadelphia, Milholin added.
The Hunger Coalition advocates for immediate, short-term, and long-term food assistance for residents in the Philadelphia area.
Government assistance exists to provide families with resources. In 2019 464,008 residents in Philadelphia county received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. In reality, the funds don’t suffice. Most recipients are unable to obtain a full month of groceries from the program’s assistance.
“So often people who visit pantries are SNAP recipients who are trying to cobble together this patchwork of resources to be able to feed their families,” Milholin said.
A Gourmet Experience
The People’s Kitchen isn’t cooking as much as they were in 2020, but they aren’t going anywhere. Spices, recipes, chefs, gardeners, volunteers, and donors keep the People’s Kitchen at the forefront of innovation as they school Philadelphia on their unique way to feed people.
“We can, without limits, just be completely creative,” Miller said. “We don’t have to sell this food.”
That allows the People’s Kitchen to do something not many feeding organizations can— use quality ingredients, grown in the city, to prepare delicious food for those in local communities who need it most.
“I’ve noticed that, at least when I’ve volunteered with soup kitchens or food pantries in the past, people don’t necessarily care about the flavor,” Chin said. “But food is a human right, and people should be able to access good pleasurable food, and a pleasurable meal. It shouldn’t just be a privilege.”
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