On the other side of the country, on a formerly abandoned lot in West Philadelphia, Jade Walker and Johanna Rosen, both 27, are growing produce and selling it to local residents at dirt-cheap prices.
Both Walker and Rosen are former employees of the Urban Nutrition Initiative (UNI), a project of the University of Pennsylvania that teaches children in the public schools about nutrition and wellness. When the two women decided they wanted to reach more community members and grow more crops than they could in the school gardens, they applied for a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to start Mill Creek Farm.
The farm’s mission is twofold: to improve access to nutritious foods, and to promote sustainable resource use by growing and distributing produce and by demonstrating ecological methods of living.
Located in a low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhood, the farm shares an acre and a half with an established community garden. The land that wasn’t being used by the garden was filled with garbage, weeds, and drug activity, but the soil wasn’t contaminated. “We didn’t have to do any remediation,” says Rosen. “We just put in mushroom compost.”
In the summer of 2006, the farm’s first growing season, Walker, Rosen, and the few hundred volunteers who stopped by to lend a hand grew 50 varieties of fruit, vegetables, and herbs, giving some of it away and selling some from their on-site market. “Okra was our best seller,” says Rosen enthusiastically. “The farm is right on the corner; it’s a very visible site, and we would sell out of it even before our market opened.”
To keep the price of its produce down — heirloom tomatoes sold for just a dollar a pound at the farm stand — Mill Creek also sold some of its crops wholesale to local markets and a restaurant. In addition, the farm received grants and donations for its educational program, which last year included hands-on workshops building a composting toilet, a graywater collection system, and a toolshed with an ecoroof, as well as installation of a drip-irrigation system and a broken-tile mosaic.
“Part of what we want to do is encourage people to grow their own food,” says Rosen, who has a bachelor’s degree in the political economy of the environment. “And we definitely want to increase access to healthy, fresh food. In higher-income neighborhoods, there’s more access to better-tasting, more-nutritious food. In these low-income neighborhoods, there aren’t a lot of supermarkets. People do a lot of their shopping at corner stores, where the produce isn’t good quality.”
Rosen readily admits that she and Walker, who are both white and come from middle-class backgrounds, are outsiders in the Mill Creek neighborhood. But because of their years working with UNI in the schools, they know a lot of the young people and don’t feel like total strangers.
The kids who stop by the garden, Rosen says, enthusiastically join in the planting and tending of crops. And many of the older folks who live in the area came from the South and love growing things. It’s been a bigger challenge, she says, to engage the people “in the middle” in garden activities.
Now that the infrastructure of the farm is in place, Rosen hopes to spend more time on outreach and involving a larger segment of the surrounding community. The farm will work with schools and community centers, and send out more fliers and newsletters to reach residents.
Rosen also hopes to have a kitchen base some day, so the farm can offer cooking programs. “In my experience in the schools,” she says, “I found that having people prepare the food is the best way to get them to eat it.”