Power Plants

The Philadelphia Orchard Project is harvesting edible agriculture one vacant lot at a time
by Natalie Hope McDonald


From Kensington’s Cambria Orchard to Chester Avenue’s Squirrel Hill and the Martin Luther King High School Farm on West Oak Lane, fresh fruits and vegetables are being harvested in once-vacant, crime-ridden lots. It’s all part of a massive nutrition plan by Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP) to grow sustainable and edible agriculture in local communities that need it the most.

According to Phil Forsyth, POP’s orchard director, the organization has done 14 orchard plantings since the their inception two years ago. “The key is we don’t seek out the space,” he says. “Groups come to us.” That includes faith-based Circle Venture, which maintains an orchard and adjacent play space for children in Kensington, Grupo Motivos, a women’s collective dedicated to sustaining food security in Norristown, and the New Africa Center and Muslim American Museum, which harvests food in West Philly for youth service groups.

“What distinguishes POP from most other food and community greening and gardening groups is we’re devoted to food justice issues,” says Domenic Vitiello, POP’s president and an assistant professor of city, regional planning and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Vitiello says POP works with nonprofits with roots in the region to plant orchards in low-income communities where citizens don’t always have access to healthy food. “They often lack control over food production,” he says. “We don’t actually own the orchards, but we help them plant.”

POP also teaches the community members, many of whom have never worked in a garden before, how to sustain the orchards over time. At the Chester Avenue Orchard, for example, the Neighborhood Gardens Association maintains the orchard and distributes food to gardeners and local food banks, while the Teens 4 Good Orchard in Poplar sells produce to local restaurants and at the City Hall Farmer’s Market. Proceeds are then reinvested into youth programs.

“Groups from around the city may apply,” says Forsyth. “But they have to have some legal access to the land. And the community partners become the actual caretakers.” POP must also determine water access to the orchard and performs soil tests to make sure there’s no contamination before planting. “We’re looking for sites in low-income neighborhoods that need access to fresh food.”

Combating food insecurity was very much on the mind of community organizer Paul Glover when he founded POP in 2007. He applied what he had learned from a growing worldwide movement dedicated to developing sustainable and ethical food systems in Philadelphia, which was estimated as having more than 40,000 vacant lots at the time and one of the highest poverty rates in urban America.

According to POP, as many as 500 people in Philadelphia have joined the group’s listserv. There are also active members of the orchard committee and dozens of community groups that participate in POP’s mission. “We hope we will expand our capacity,” says Vitiello, “and train people in tending orchards.”

Vitiello says the orchards perform a powerful job in the communities that are most affected by poor nutritional opportunities and neglect. But the orchards don’t only provide a valuable fresh food source; they also reduce urban heat by absorbing carbon emissions, filtering water naturally, cleaning the air, absorbing noise and reducing storm water runoff. And for every vacant lot that has been turned into an orchard or community garden, these neighborhoods become more livable and beautiful, and allow neighbors to work together to learn skills such as planting, composting, food processing and tending.

This year, POP received a small grant to develop a nursery in Philadelphia that will produce food which will be shared with needy families. With spring being the organization’s busiest season for planting, POP is already in the midst of planting new orchards abundant with berry and nut bushes, as well as pear, peach and cherry trees. Communities also harvest hazelnuts, blackberries, blueberries, currants and figs. “We work with groups to determine what trees and berry bushes they would like most in the community,” says Vitiello, who notes that many orchards are oriented toward specific ethnic groups. They plant Asian pear trees and persimmon, as well as fruits used in Puerto Rican and African cuisines.

POP also researches which bushes and trees will attract the most beneficial insects, and which are most susceptible to disease. “We rarely plant apple trees,” says Vitiello, because of the difficulty in keeping them disease-free.

Last year, POP partnered with the Mural Arts Project and PlaySpace to create an orchard at Hartranft Elementary School on West Cumberland Street in North Philadelphia. The greening project, which included the de-paving of a portion of the school’s parking lot, was part of the elementary school’s science and environmental education program. The students and community members now sustain the orchard and green space themselves, which reclaims two abandoned lots in the process.

“What has been significant,” says Shari Hersh, director of the Mural Art Project’s art education initiative Mural Corps, “is the amount of people coming together for this project.” Hersh created a blog about the ongoing experience (muralartstylerhartranft.blogspot.com) illustrating the community’s efforts, art projects and orchard planting.

POP was also invited to create a display orchard at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. last year. Called One Planet: Ours the permaculture orchard was designed to showcase sustainable strategies for the 22nd century, according to POP. When the exhibition closed in the fall of 2008, the plants and trees were all uprooted and replanted in Philadelphia.

Even though POP’s oldest orchard in Philly has existed for just over eighteen months, according to Forsyth, “We already see the effects. It’s a positive thing to see people in the community get together in their own neighborhoods.” He predicts there will be an even more significant need for these orchards as more people are impacted by the distressing economy. “But even before the economic crisis, this was a way to address the disparity in food access,” he concludes. “The local food movement was something that basically had no relevance to people furthest down the income level scale. But POP has given these people access to fresh and healthy food.”