On a rainy spring morning on North 31st Street, Christina Holley stepped into the once-vacant lot she’s turned into a community garden, and set about removing the winter tarps that covered its beds.
Her excitement about the prospects of the small strip of land, sandwiched between row houses and lined by chain-linked fences, was undamped by the wet weather.
“My plan is to have a bed to make salsa. So we’ll grow the tomatoes, the peppers, all the things that go into the salsa and we can give it out to the neighbors,” Holley said, pulling a bulb of garlic that had a head start on the growing season.
“But that’s far away,” she added, wistfully.
Holley is relatively new to Philadelphia’s rich community garden scene, starting her plot in Strawberry Mansion last summer after graduating from college. As a non-traditional student, and a mother, she struggled to get enough food. It was a defining experience.
“I was like, ‘Wait, why am I in college paying all this money, and hungry and don’t have access to the food that I want or need?’” Holley said.
It drove her to get a degree in sociology, follow it with a job helping universities build more robust food programs, and start a garden for her neighborhood.
Philadelphians are more likely than most Americans to experience what activists have dubbed “food apartheid” — systemic segregation from access to nutritious food and food production. According to a study by the School District of Philadelphia published last year, more than 16% of households are food insecure, 6% higher than the national rate.
It’s no coincidence. Nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty line — double the national average. And in Philadelphia, you’re more likely to find stores with little healthy food than ones with a lot.
Reporters Imani Greene-Berry and Imara Stewart are sophomores at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA). Amaya Hopkins is a junior at CAPA. Saoni Lorenzo is a junior at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School. They were participants in Youthcast Media Group’s recent food insecurity reporting workshop and worked with YMG instructor and former USA TODAY investigative reporter Cara Kelly on this story. YMG, a nonprofit, trains U.S. high school students from under-resourced communities to report on the solutions to health and social problems where they live.
There are growing fears it may get worse. COVID-era Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits ended in February, leaving more than 3 in 10 Philadelphians with less to spend on groceries each month. At the same time, grocery prices are predicted to increase 5%-10%, on top of an 11% increase last year.
“It’s crazy,” said Sharon Hildebrand, chair of the steering committee for Brewerytown Garden, about a mile south of Strawberry Mansion. “Everything’s higher and your benefits are getting cut by more than half.”
Brewerytown has one of the city’s 400 gardens working to fill the void, hosting the neighborhood’s only farmers market and stocking it with lower-cost fruits and vegetables.
But many of the city’s community gardens — including Holley’s — are under threat. As land has become more valuable in recent years, the risk of sale and redevelopment looms.
Holley is one of many gardeners who don’t own the land they tend. A majority of gardens are started by people simply reclaiming vacant property, some of which was part of the city’s widely-criticized 1997 sale of tax liens to a private bank, which is now looking to divest the property in sheriff’s sales.
That’s why gardeners, nonprofits, and community members are pushing to remove barriers to local, neighborhood-based ownership of these small-scale food production sites. They believe community gardens can be part of the solution to a rising need for access to affordable, healthy food.
Black communities are hardest hit
During the pandemic, many Philly community gardens stepped up to help families in need. Brewerytown Garden partnered with Common Market, a wholesaler working with regional farmers, to distribute 400 boxes of food a week. A grant from Arnold Bread allowed them to add proteins like eggs, and Hildebrand, the garden’s steering committee chair, convinced the bread company to donate loaves.
Today, the garden’s board is considering expanding to community fridges, which provide free food around community hubs like schools.
“I think with all the cuts that are coming now, we’re going to start to see more need,” Hildebrand said.
Brewerytown has changed in the decade since the garden was started. Gentrification has brought more stores, but also higher prices.
“You can get to the Whole Foods pretty quickly,” said Jean Harris, a garden steering committee member. “But you know, five bucks will get you an apple.”
The next-closest store is Aldi, which is more affordable, she said, but other options are a half-hour bus ride away.
It’s worse in neighboring communities with lower median incomes. For every one high-produce store in the poorest areas of the city, there are seven low-produce stores like corner markets and pharmacies, according to a 2019 study by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. Black Philadelphians, like Holley and many of her Strawberry Mansion neighbors, make up 45% of the residents in areas with an overabundance of unhealthy food.
The domination of processed foods versus produce has huge health implications, experts say.
Eating too much food high in saturated fat, sodium and sugar can cause heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and stroke, said Margo Wootan, president of MXG Strategies and former director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“People don’t think about what they eat causing them to go blind or lose a limb,” said Wootan, who was instrumental in pushing the government to require more clear nutritional labeling for things such as trans fats. “But some of the biggest contributors to disabilities are stroke, which causes older people to lose their ability to live independently. Sodium and obesity are big contributors. ”
Even when people have access to grocery stores, healthier options can cost more. Lean beef is often pricier than higher fat beef. Same goes for white bread and whole grain. Companies know people will pay for nutrition, and drive up prices and thus profits, Wootan said.
“For lower income families, the way that the companies, the food manufacturers, and the grocery stores price the food makes it harder for people to choose the healthier options,” Wootan said.
Philly’s gardens face their own insecurity
Community gardens are one part of the solution, said Marlana Moore, land preservation manager at Neighborhood Gardens Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Philadelphia’s gardens.
Their importance became clear for residents like Holley during the pandemic and its aftermath.
“Not being able to go to the market at the time that I wanted, the one that I wanted, the amount that I wanted… It was very, very jarring, traumatizing, shocking,” Holley said.
During lockdowns, a friend gave Holley a community supported agriculture (CSA) box from Brewerytown. It provided further inspiration to replicate the garden’s success.
“For somebody to give it to me because I live in the neighborhood, number one, and because they saw the need, was so validating,” Holley said. “I don’t think that I would have gotten that service had that community garden not had their eye on the community, their ear to the ground, [and an] understanding of the people that live around it.”
Like many in the city, Holley started her garden on a vacant piece of land, owned by the same person who sold her a rowhouse down the street. She has a verbal agreement with the land owner, but nothing precluding a future sale to a developer. The thought of a bulldozer rolling over her daffodils and tulips is anxiety-producing.
Moore, of Neighborhood Garden Trust, said it’s a no-win situation: “If you … wait until you get permission to start a garden, you’re going to run the risk of never having one. When you start a garden on land that you don’t have permission to be on, it also comes with its own risks, because it could go away at any time.”
Last fall, after years of advocacy efforts, the city published a near-final draft of its first Urban Agricultural Plan — a 10-year strategy for investments and policy initiatives to uplift Philadelphia’s urban farming and confront the structural racism farmers have faced.
Still, threats persist as the plan comes to fruition. In March, a group of 30 gardens, nonprofits and advocates sent a letter to the city’s Land Bank, which has a mission to return vacant properties to productive use, asking the board of directors to remove what it calls unnecessary barriers.
For example, the Land Bank routinely attaches 30-year self-amortizing mortgages to land conveyed to community gardens, which are meant to make sure there’s no debt at the end of the term, but the group said can also be a liability.
“Written into the details of the mortgage is that you would be considered in default if the land is not kept clean and free of debris. So for a garden, that can be really problematic, because gardens are messy,” Moore said. “That is what we’ve kind of put our feet in the sand about because we believe that gardens are permanent parts of the neighborhood.”
Benefits go way beyond food
Though community gardens have seen increasing support from stakeholders, both Moore and Holley say it’s a challenge to make a case for permanent land use, and to convey gardens’ broad impact, which goes beyond food access.
“Having different gardens where people can get their hands dirty, grow things for their own selves, own families, to introduce young children to how food is grown, it gives them a different relationship to food,” Moore said.
“If we develop a city without them, then you’re losing something that’s really important, that can really be the heart and soul of blocks in neighborhoods.”
The benefits are more than theoretical. The Center for Disease Control in 2019 published a series of articles noting that “numerous social and emotional benefits of community gardening have been documented, including social interaction.”
It’s something Holley sees regularly in Strawberry Mansion.
As the rain fell that Saturday morning in March, a woman walked by holding an umbrella. She’d noticed the lot-turned-garden, and the vibrant splash of color from Holley’s daffodils, which stood in contrast to the gray day.
“This is beautiful,” the neighbor yelled over the rain. “Do you live here?”
The two exchanged names, and Holley told the woman to stop by when it was sunny.
Holley turned back to her beds, smiling as she noted, “It happens often.”