Growing Their Own: North Philly neighbors pick their own produce from a new urban farm

written by Dana HenryThis past April, Kevin Musselman, coordinator for the Kensington Area Neighborhood Advisory Committee (KANAC), approached neighbors at Frankford and Cambria Streets in West Kensington. “We’re going to start a farm in that lot over there,” he told them. The lot he was referring to, like many derelict parcels inthe area, was frequently the site of drug activity and prostitution.

“A farm? In the hood?” the neighbors questioned.

“Yeah, a farm, right in your neighborhood,” responded Musselman.

This neighborhood, where KANAC currently facilitates grassroots community projects, is part of the first congressional district in Pennsylvania which in 2010, ranked fourth highest in the nation for food hardship—meaning households don’t have enough money to buy all the food they need. In 2009, the district had ranked second. Recently, the Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which helps stock fresh produce in underserved areas, has aggressively targeted Kensington, but for decades residents have had trouble finding much to eat besides chips, Honey Buns, hot dogs and other highly processed meats and starches. In 2010, after a group of neighbors—including members of neighborhood organizations such as Philly Tree People, Harrogate Tree Tenders and Kensington Food Co-Op—attended an annual Community Leadership Institute conference in Louisville, Ky. held by NeighborWorks America, they decided it was time for Kensington to get a farm.

“[Farming ] was a new idea,” says Musselman. “This is a part of Kensington [that’s] faced with a lot of challenges in terms of crime, drug sales, vacant land, and urban blight and decay. When neighbors saw a group of people working together to do something positive, a lot of them got excited.”

KANAC’s initial meeting brought in just a handful of people. Since then, five families have taken the lead on the project. The Fresh Start Foundation, a neighboring transitional housing program for adults in recovery, has involved up to 30 residents to provide daily waterings and weekly clean-ups. The farm planted snap peas, arugula, spinach, radishes, turnips, carrots and garlic for the colder season, and any neighbor can come by and do their own seasonal picking.

Scott Cox, a Fresh Start supervisor and KANAC board member, says keeping the farm open has helped more residents join in and learn about farming. “It’s a great idea,” Cox says of the project. “The farm is only one house unit size, but it has a big impact on the community.”

Musselman and members of KANAC hope the project, funded by a small grant from NeighborWorks America, will extend the emerging movement of urban food production past the Lehigh Avenue boundary. “We just want to make neighbors aware,” says Musselman. “If someone has been hesitant to get involved, but at any point they know they can go over and grab a ripe tomato—and it’s the first time they’ve ever done that—they get enthusiastic.”