Divine Ripened: Farming program uses empty spaces at Sacred Places

Partners for Sacred Places has been pairing social service and cultural organizations with houses of worship since 1989, allowing these groups to enjoy low-cost homes in underutilized spaces. But it wasn’t until recently that Partners began noticing other church assets that could be used to create new food systems.

Partners program associate Caroline Acheatel says that many religious buildings “have these beautiful commercial kitchens, or they’re often sitting on a great campus of green space, or next to an empty lot that they own.” In 2011, Partners began forging relationships with the Food Trust, Urban Tree Connection, the Philadelphia Orchard Project and the Philadelphia Department of Commerce. Food in Sacred Places was born.

The pilot program in West Philadelphia pairs Ward African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church with the Urban Tree Connection (UTC). Ward AME enjoys plenty of outdoor space — the footprint of five adjacent rowhomes — so UTC planted food crops in raised beds on part of that property. Cooking demonstrations are slated to begin in August, using both the kitchen and the large social hall. Most of the food will come directly from the garden, with any supplemental produce arriving from an all-organic Lancaster farm. The site will also become home to a farmers market serving West Philadelphians.

“We work at the intersection of historic preservation and community development,” says Acheatel. Churches may receive rent income, but perhaps more importantly, their congregations and communities are strengthened by these partnerships and program. The food justice organizations benefit from well-located, well-appointed facilities and enthusiastic neighbors.

The next step, says Acheatel, is working with the Departments of Commerce and Licenses and Inspections to put shared incubator kitchens in churches and navigating zoning laws with the Health Department to make sure facilities are up to code. “It’s definitely challenging,” she says, “but I think it’s doable, and the payoff would be so great for people in Philadelphia.”

For more information, visit sacredplaces.org.

Story by Molly O’Neill