By: Yanuara Ramirez
While it may not seem like the ideal place to farm, Philadelphia’s urban farming movement has grown over the years. In vacant lots and available spaces, community members and non-profit organizations have built dozens of community gardens and farms.
While city agriculture is not efficient enough to feed large populations, the purpose of these farms and gardens is to strengthen community ties and deal with issues of food justice. Community gardens in some neighborhoods provide access to fresh produce where food isn’t very accessible.
The Jewish Farm School , established in 2006, is one of many organizations that deals with issues of food justice and aims to educate and mobilize Jews to work for more just and equitable food systems and holds programs to teach homesteading skills including composting, gardening and cheese making.
Through its Philly Farm Crew program, the Jewish Farm School connects volunteers to farms and gardens throughout the city that are serving fresh local produce to community members. This program is meant to help people who want to feel connected to nature, but are overwhelmed by the challenge of doing so in a city.
Philadelphia, once an industrial center, has over 40,000 vacant lots.
“On one hand that is a challenge, in that in many cases those vacant properties don’t look particularly nice; they kind of feed into blight and images of poverty, and they also represent a lot of opportunities where a lot of gardeners and farmers…are using them as productive spaces in their communities,” said Passow.
A great example of productivity, the Sunday Breakfast Farm is a small farm built on the parking lot of the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. The project was started by artist Meei Ling Ng, who envisioned a vibrant but also productive space. This is one of the places where the Philly Farm Crew volunteers.
Other volunteers include the rescue missions “overcomers”, who receive help form the organization, and also help upkeep the garden. When harvest time comes around, the food is brought to the kitchen and served in meals to the homeless community.
“Overcomers every year, they love this fig tree so much; when the figs are ready they’ll come out and help harvest the figs, and they will just eat fresh right there, usually very enjoying. Not just for food, but mentally, they are very happy because most of the overcomers will tell me, ‘oh, this brings back memories of grandmother’s backyard…’,” said Ng.
Alex Voynow, the program coordinator and a Jewish Outdoor Food and Farming fellow, aims to bring an environmental, ecological consciousness derived from Judaism and other earth-based traditions to contemporary movements for food and land justice.
“In a city it’s easy to feel like everything is controlled by government and corporations, and it feels kind of alienating and like you don’t have a lot of power, so you don’t feel connected. I think it’s the cause of a lot of urban issues, and so I think it’s really important for people to feel that, oh, I have agency and power, and suddenly you see yourself differently… and you see your community differently,” said Voynow.
While there is plenty of rural areas outside of the city that can feed the city’s population, the benefits of urban farms and gardens are mostly spiritual and psychological. For some it can be a hobby, but in many neighborhoods the gardens provide green productive spaces that are also beautiful. Not only do these gardens increase access to fresh produce for communities, but they serve to bring them together.