A wonderful story from Philadelphia Weekly (July 19, 2006) profiling a West Philly farm (guess who) that brings nutrition and environmentalism to the inner city.
By Jesse Smith
Early one morning last week, just blocks from the fried- and Chinese-food joints that line Lancaster Avenue in West Philly, Johanna Rosen and Jade Walker laid plastic irrigation tubes among rows of rainbow chard and winter squash. Students from University City High School pitched in, helping okra, potatoes and other produce survive July's peak summer heat in Mill Creek Farm, the city's newest agricultural endeavour and a growing model of sustainable food production in a neighborhood that's long lacked access to fresh produce.
Though this summer is Mill Creek's first growing season, the project began more than a year ago. Rosen and Walker were working on garden projects with area schools as part of Penn's Urban Nutrition Initiative when the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) announced it was seeking proposals for stormwater runoff management projects on the department's 1.5-acre property at 49th and Brown streets.
"Both of us really enjoy growing food in the city and working with youth," Rosen says, "but the school garden model felt a little limiting. The production schedule and school year didn't line up, and we were often short on space."
The two pitched the idea of an urban farm to preserve the existing community garden that's been on the site for 15 years. Their plan won the department's approval as well as $50,000 from the state's Growing Greener program.
A year later Rosen and Walker have spun that approval and funding into a working farm with multiple eco-friendly elements. All growing is done organically. A utility vehicle donated by SEPTA now runs on biodiesel but will be converted to run entirely on vegetable oil. Construction of an enclosed workspace involved reusing existing building materials and cobbing, a building practice that utilizes sand, clay and straw from the site.
That structure houses a waterless compost toilet and water reclamation system that treats used sink water for irrigation. And in keeping with PWD's initial goal of mitigating the effects of stormwater runoff, workers established a living roof on top of the structure and planted perennials with year-round root systems to act as filters.
For now the farm is selling its produce every Saturday through a streetside stand and to the Mariposa Food Co-op. Rosen and Walker hope to eventually start a mobile market.
They also intend to use Mill Creek as an educational tool. It's already hosted several school groups and a cobbing workshop, and Rosen and Walker hope to build a kitchen for cooking instruction that incorporates the farm's produce.
Plant it right here: Mill Creek is part of a growing urban farm movement in Philadelphia.
Mill Creek's development is part of a larger network of successful local food production and delivery that includes Somerton Tanks and Greensgrow farms, multiple farmers' markets and hundreds of community gardens. SustainLane, an online sustainability community, recently ranked Philadelphia third in the local food and agriculture category of its 2006 national survey.
John Smith of the White Dog Cafe Foundation, whose Fair Food program is coordinating the current Buy Fresh Buy Local Week--which includes Mill Creek--says the growth of these programs is an important means of reconnecting people with the food they consume. "A farm like this isn't going to provide food for the entire neighborhood," he says, "but the more successful models we have, the more we can prove the viability of urban agriculture and grow more accessible food."