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Neighborhood Foods program helps urban farms move toward community ownership and financial sustainability

July 22, 2012

“We were made from dirt. So food that comes straight out of the ground – you can’t get better than that,” said Eric Daniels. Daniels, who is 19, was recently hired as a Farm Assistant at The Enterprise Center CDC’s Walnut Hill Community Farm in West Philadelphia. He believes that the food he grows and sells is better than anything you can get at the supermarket.

We were made from dirt. So food that comes straight out of the ground – you can’t get better than that

“Hiring Eric was a big step for us,” said Allison Blansfield of TEC-CDC. The Walnut Hill Community Farm, which is located next to the SEPTA El station at 46th and Market Streets, recently partnered with the Urban Tree Connection to support a community-based cooperative food project called Neighborhood Foods.  The program aims to create jobs by growing and selling food on urban farms. “As we partner with more farms, we can hire more community members as farmers,” said Blansfield.

Nestled between the backyards of homes on 46th and Farragut Streets, the Walnut Hill Community Farm combines urban farming, youth development, and community enterprise.

Urban farm food for the neighborhood

The Neighborhood Foods partnership began this spring with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A CSA is an alternative, locally-based model of food distribution where a group of individuals pledge to support local farms by paying for a subscription or share. In exchange for their financial contribution, these supporters receive a box of vegetables and fruits each week. In this way, growers and consumers share the risks and benefits of growing local food.

“This isn’t grant-funded, so we’re looking to subsidize the low-income shares by using a two-tiered system,” Blansfield said. “We have market shares that are $600 for 22 weeks of produce, and subsidized shares that are only $245.” Currently, 62 shares have been sold, 9 of which are discounted for low-income families living in the neighborhoods where the farms are located: Walnut Hill and Haddington. That’s 12 more than their initial goal of 50 shares, and there is still a surplus in produce.

CSA members pick up their shares on Fridays at the farm stand, right next to the SEPTA Station.

This wouldn’t have been possible for the Walnut Hill Community Farm on its own. Combining its harvest with that of the Urban Tree Connection’s Haddington farm located at 53rd St. and Wyalusing St. provided the quantity and diversity of fruits and vegetables that make the CSA possible.

Toward a community cooperative

This is not about creating two financially sustainable nonprofit projects. This is about creating… a unified cooperative.

In addition to the CSA, both organizations aimed to make their farms more financially sustainable, transform the local food system, improve the community, and develop youth and community leadership in the process. Ultimately, the Neighborhood Foods program wants to stand on its own, as a community cooperative.

“This is not about creating two financially sustainable nonprofit projects,” explained Dylan Baird, who works for Urban Tree Connection and is the Business Manager for Neighborhood Foods. “This is about creating what will eventually be a multi-stakeholder organization—and that includes farmers, bread-makers, community members, and people who live around the garden and are invested and involved—where all those people are coming together under a unified cooperative.”

Who doesn’t want peaches growing in their backyard?

The two nonprofits that support the project now, The Enterprise Center and Urban Tree Connection, are working to direct grant funding toward educational programs that can deepen the impact of the farms, while increasing their revenue. “We’re both trying to expand our youth programs, so it made sense to partner on the youth program,” said Blansfield. Instruction around horticulture, nutrition, cooking, entrepreneurship, small business management, and community leadership will be folded into this summer’s youth program.

More than just jobs for youth

We’re trying to give youth a lot of responsibility, to be the drivers of change in the food system

Already, three jobs have been created on the farms as a result of Neighborhood Foods. Daniels, the Farm Assistant at Walnut Hill Community Farm, is one of these three new hires. In July and August, the Neighborhood Foods Summer Youth Program will employ 25 youth from the neighborhood like Daniels.  The new staff will expand the local food infrastructure of Walnut Hill and Haddington.

“It’s a job, but it’s more than a job,” said Daniels. “It’s helping me learn what’s going on behind the scenes in this community, how this small thing is helping the big picture. I’m learning a lot.” Daniels plans to go to school to become a Landscape Architect and to continue working with young people as he gets older.

Flowers are not only pretty – they attract bees and other beneficial wildlife.

Daniels admits that urban farming was not always fun or exciting. But after being introduced to gardens and growing food at school, he says, “Things just fell in place and I really started to like it. If I got up tomorrow and someone asked ‘Would you be willing to do this?’ I would be, paid or not.”

TEC-CDC and Urban Tree Connection hope the summer youth program will be transformative and life-changing in the same way for the 25 participants. As Blansfield said, “We’re trying to give youth a lot of responsibility, to be the drivers of change in the food system.”

Sustainability at the Walnut Hill Community Farm: linking transit, community, and urban farming

We want the infrastructure to continue to work for the community with or without us

One of the Walnut Hill Community Farm’s greatest assets is its location: SEPTA-owned land next to the 46th and Market train station and TEC-CDC in the Walnut Hill neighborhood. Because of its location, many residents pass the farm on their way to and from work, increasing its exposure and adding to the community’s sense of ownership. “A lot of residents nearby are actually gardening themselves now,” said Blansfield. The farm stand and CSA program also benefit from the added exposure and foot traffic.

And if peaches aren’t enough, well, then they have figs, too!

The farm provides a positive example of repurposed vacant land and collaboration among city agencies and community groups, as the transit authority and local institutions have been supportive of the project. SEPTA provided The Enterprise Center with a 30-year lease on the land to, as Blansfield explained, “create a community project that hopefully one day will be mostly run by the community.”

SEPTA also installed rainwater collection cisterns next to its station for the farm and will be installing a stand to hold solar panels for a solar-powered water pump. The solar pump will take the farm off the grid, delivering collected rain water to the farm through a drip irrigation system that was designed and installed by Drexel University engineering students.

The farm links multiple efforts around sustainability: mass transit, urban organic farming, youth empowerment, smart growth, community ownership, and renewable energy.

Additional improvements are planned for other properties adjacent to the 46th and Market transit stop. These include the proposed renovation of the 4601 Market St. building into the city’s Police Headquarters, the new Karabots Center of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the envisioned Enterprise Heights transit-oriented development. The Enterprise Center’s new Center for Culinary Enterprises at 48th and Pine is also opening this September. All of these nearby institutions will create opportunities for partnership for the Walnut Hill Farm and may help ensure the sustainability of projects like Neighborhood Foods.

Every project hits snags. Other improvements to the farm are planned, but many are awaiting approval from the city or pending the receipt of special taxes and fees. For example, solar lights will be installed throughout the property and additional landscaping and benches are planned for the pocket park that shares the vacant lot with the farm. “We want the infrastructure to continue to work for the community with or without us,” Blansfield said.

Fresh, green dill seed carries the full flavor of summer: add it to salsas and salads!

Ultimately, the approach of the Walnut Hill Community Farm will continue to bring mass transit, urban organic farming, youth empowerment, smart growth, community ownership, and renewable energy under the same umbrella of sustainability.

An expanding neighborhood urban farming infrastructure in Haddington

A cooperative run by everyday people is just so cool…

A large vacant parcel in the middle of the block at 53rd and Wyalusing – more than twice the size of Walnut Hill Community Farm – has been transformed by the Urban Tree Connection (UTC) and neighbors into a large, productive urban farm. UTC hired two farmers to expand production for Neighborhood Foods, which has made the joint-run CSA possible.

On Saturday morning, two volunteers, both named Joanne, sold produce at the Neighborhood Foods farm stand on 53rd Street near the entrance to the farm. One Joanne sits on the founding board of Neighborhood Foods; the other is retired and volunteers as a farmer with the project. They talked to passersby and customers about the farm, swapped delicious recipes, and shared their unique vision for cooperative community ownership.

Since Joanne retired, she has helped manage one of Neighborhood Foods’ cooperative farm properties: The Annex. Here, she’s harvesting romaine lettuce for the farm stand.

Meanwhile on the farm, neighbors Nicole and Lisa taught a cooking class to 15 participants from the area, young and old. Everyone watched the demonstration and took part in relishing the blueberry fruit smoothie and sautéed kale made from farm fresh ingredients. These classes show neighbors ideas for using CSA produce to make healthy, delicious meals. They also bring people together. “A large goal is to bring people out of their houses, get people hanging together around gardens,” said Baird. “I guess we’re trying to reunite the neighborhood, although that’s pretty lofty.”

Having a lofty vision won’t necessarily get you there, but it is an important first step. This cooperative farm in Haddington is growing fast, and its vision is spreading among neighbors. The collaborative has expanded into other vacant lots, growing vegetables in more than five locations and counting. Recently, community members expressed interest in tending their own gardens, and UTC responded by building raised beds in the corner of a nearby memorial park.

Lettuce, spinach, and kale are simple to grow and full of nutrients like Vitamin C, fiber, and iron.

There’s still a long way to go toward community ownership. “Largely it is still managed and controlled and owned by people from outside the neighborhood,” said Baird. “It’s hard to start a business in an urban neighborhood. Trying to transition from it being financed with grants and all this outside support is really tough.”

The new CSA partnership promises to put Neighborhood Foods on the path to financial sustainability. That will make it possible to create jobs for neighbors in the growing, community-based local food economy. “Everyone has something to offer and so everyone should have some financial equity in this organization,” Baird said.

Tomatoes are the king of summer crops: full of flavor and incredibly healthy.

By engaging the community in the building of a sustainable cooperative, Neighborhood Foods is recruiting the people, developing the talent, and inspiring the passion it will need to remain successful and true to its mission. Baird agrees: “A cooperative run by everyday people is just so cool – it’s the reason why I care so much about it and the reason why our farmers just work their butts off.”

Philadelphia LISC and SCI-West have supported The Enterprise Center CDC in building a healthy food system in West Philadelphia. LISC funds supported the Education Programs Associate and PUFFA Youth Supervisor, who works with youth from TEC’s Leaders About Business after school program (TEC-LAB), incorporating them into SALT & PUFFA gatherings, an Advocacy Institute being sponsored by the Health Promotion Council, and the Neighborhood Foods Youth Program. With support the Aetna Foundation, LISC provided grants for the development of a culinary business incubator, the operation of youth-based community gardening, and the implementation of community advocacy to garner healthier foods in the city’s schools. TEC-CDC and the Walnut Hill Community Farm are critical stakeholders in the 46th and Market Street Collaborative. And all of these efforts are part of SCI-West, LISC’s comprehensive community development initiative in West Philadelphia.

Visit the Neighborhood Foods website: http://www.westphillyfood.com/food/

Find out more at The Enterprise Center CDC website: http://www.theenterprisecentercdc.org/cdc/

Check out this video about Urban Tree Connection http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rp5jILLKFBU and visit their website: http://www.urbantreeconnection.org

We all have to eat, so eat local if you can!

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