Student organization Drexel Urban Growers (DUG) has created a new program to send West Philadelphia families home with fresh, organic produce from the community garden every other Saturday. With the help of a grant awarded in January 2016, the club widened their outreach capabilities by initiating a new Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) system. The David and Dana Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships’ community garden hosted 30 to 40 participants and volunteers, the largest number of guests it’s ever seen, June 25 during the launch of the CSA harvest program.
While the community garden at the Dornsife Center has held bi-weekly harvest days in past summers, DUG wanted to facilitate more of an educational and interactive experience with its members and the community while harvesting the produce. So, they applied for grant funding, which they received.
“The goal was to address the lack of healthy food options in the surrounding Drexel communities of Mantua and Powelton Village, educate people about nutrition, and encourage more people to participate in the garden,” Catherine Lowther, a member of DUG, explained in an email.
The new program started off by using grant money to secure reusable tote bags DUG distributed to participating community members. On harvest days, the participants can come to the community garden with their reusable canvas totes, and fill them with produce from the garden to take home. This produce comes for free in exchange for work hours, which community members log by helping harvest, weed and maintain the garden for about two hours every Saturday morning. Portions for the CSA members are weighed out each week.
“We wanted to distribute things evenly and make sure people got a bag with separate things instead of a take-what-you-want like before where it was really hectic. This is still kind of what happens, but it just keeps the community members more involved. A lot of times, people would pass by on the street and come by and say, ‘what are you growing today?’ And that’s great, too, but this gets them actively involved and that’s really great,” explained Bryce Peckman, the garden engineer for DUG, who has been associated for two years with the organization.
Peckman was very busy July 9, the second day of the program, taking care of a small blight infestation on the tomatoes and the chard, and directing the harvesters where to cut off the infected vines and stems. She was constantly being consulted by the other gardeners for advice. Her job, as she put it, is mostly groundskeeping and teaching others gardening techniques. She also helps monitor the soil levels and qualities in the raised beds, judging when to add new soil or aerate the beds. After everything has been harvested, Peckman enters weight and quantity data into a spreadsheet as other members help weigh the harvested produce.
“Unlike other CSAs that I’ve come across where you pay into it in advance, this is more of a work-trade type of arrangement. You come in, you help with the labor, you help with the gardening and the weeding. For me it’s really nice because I’ve always wanted to have a garden,” Raven Wylde-Griffin, a community member participating in the CSA program with her partner Arthur, explained. She was busy helping harvest vegetables with about seven other community members and 10 Drexel students.
“We ended up getting enrolled because we finally saw people out here working on it [while walking by],” she continued.
She explained how her walks with her dog Zeus brought her and Arthur past the garden frequently. Zeus was also at the garden that Saturday, rolling around in the grass and getting a lot of love from the students there.
“I really appreciate how much it brings the community in. I find that, at least last week, we had a lot of people who wouldn’t normally be part of a CSA, outside of college students. It can be really tough to actually buy into quality produce … The neighborhood behind us isn’t super well-off, and we had a lot of people coming in from there,” Wylde-Griffin explained.
She went on to explain how nearby communities are suffering from the lack of fresh food, and were existing in a “food desert.” Food deserts occur where there is a lack of grocery stores selling quality fresh fruits, vegetables and animal products. In place of healthy foods, there is an abundance of small convenience stores which supply snacks and junk food. People living in these areas are forced by economic and geographic pressures to mostly live off of unhealthy snack food.
Programs like the new CSA harvest in conjunction with the Dornsife Center and DUG are very important to supply healthy, fresh food to neighborhoods such as Powelton and Mantua which are economically disfavored.
“I think neighborhood-based gardening projects like this are a really great way to help build community and help with the food issues that we’re currently facing, especially in lower-income neighborhoods, and I would like to see more initiatives like this taken up by, say, the city. There are plenty of green spaces that would be perfectly easy to start something like this in,” Wylde-Griffin stated.
Members of DUG are around on harvest days to educate participants about the produce and general nutrition. According to current DUG president Lily McClure, on CSA harvest days, anywhere from 10 to 40 student and community volunteers may attend.
“People come for all sorts of reasons, but we have a policy that everyone is always welcome to come and learn no matter who they are or what their experience level. We’ve gotten some of our most loyal community members because they happened to walk by while someone was at work in our teeny-tiny field,” McClure stated in an email.
On the first day of the CSA program, participants harvested swiss chard, kale, collard greens, cabbage, kohlrabi and scallions. There were also free snacks and beverages, provided by Philly Foodworks, one of Philadelphia’s CSA-style farmshare organizations. On the second harvest day, the group harvested kale, rainbow chard, onions, collard greens and scallions. The next harvest day is July 23, and the group will meet from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
“For community members living on the border of the Mantua food desert, not only do we offer a source of fresh, responsibly grown produce, but also a way of reconnecting with where our food comes from. We give away food on a ‘take what you need’ basis, so some people leave with just a bunch or two of greens, while those more in need are able to fill up a grocery bag or two of produce,” McClure explained.
“CSA traditionally stands for community supported agriculture, but in this case, we like to think of it as the agriculture supporting the community,” Lowther explained.
All of the efforts of DUG to start the new program were made possible through the grant money they won in a contest. The contest was held by non-profit group Net Impact and funded by the Newman’s Own Foundation.The collective project aimed to provide funding to groups with innovative ideas focused on food-sourcing and nutrition. Net Impact’s project “Impact Food” connects clubs and organizations like DUG with challenge grants such as the one funded by the Newman’s Own Foundation. If organizations produce winning ideas, the grant money they receive is used to help make an impact on food and nutrition issues in their communities.
As harvest days continue through the summer, DUG plans to hold additional programming to encourage more student and community participation. Their Facebook page will continue to post updates on Thursday night gardening and yoga sessions, as well as workshops on canning and gardening technique.