Art project produces fresh food for the homeless in Chinatown

photo by Sang Cun

photo by Sang Cun

by Alex Jones

The view from the north side of Vine Street just east of Broad is all high-rises and highways: concrete, brick and asphalt as far as the eye can see, with neat rows of street trees lining the road as a perfunctory nod to nature. But, north of the Vine Street Expressway, tucked in the back pocket of a parking lot of Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, a nonprofit that serves the city’s homeless population, artist and urban farmer Meei-Ling Ng has brought a burst of green into the concrete jungle of Chinatown North.

“Grow Food Where You Live” is the first stage of Ng’s 2014–2015 residency at Asian Arts Initiative’s Social Practice Lab, which funds artists to experiment “with processes that combine artistic excellence and innovation with building relationships and effecting positive change within the community.” Her project presents a practical approach to high-volume growing in a small space. Rows of colorful raised planters hold tomatoes, finger-sized eggplants, sweet corn and basil, while cucumbers, cantaloupe, beans and summer squash grow 12 feet high on a trellis along Sunday Breakfast’s wall, maximizing the yield of a small footprint. 

Ng estimates that she and her helpers—men from the mission’s Overcomers recovery program and area volunteers—harvested around 1,000 pounds of produce since planting began in the spring.

And every bit of it helps. Sunday Breakfast serves nearly 600 meals per day—morning, noon and night—to men in their emergency shelter, to the Overcomers, and to anyone else, including women and children, who arrive hungry. Eighty percent of food served has been donated, but that means relying mostly on shelf-stable, prepackaged foods. A source for fresh produce right outside the dining room door makes a big difference in the quality of the mission’s meals.

“It’s little things, like putting fresh strawberries in the pancakes in the morning, or fresh tomatoes in the marinara sauce,” says Rosalyn Forbes, Communications and Marketing Coordinator at Sunday Breakfast.

“This is what they refer to as a park poor neighborhood,” says Nancy Chen, senior program manager at Asian Arts Initiative. “With the exception of the incoming [Reading] viaduct park, there’s not that much green space and plants.” Chen is referring to a proposed project still in its infancy that would create parks and open space overtop of old elevated rail lines. With bustling development in Chinatown North, owners of vacant lots are loathe to turn over space to gardeners. The sliver of Sunday Breakfast’s lot would be the perfect place.

William Brown of North Philadelphia has spent more than eight months in the Overcomers program. He and his cohort began weekly sessions with Ng in February, starting seeds indoors, constructing dozens of planters from wooden pallets, bringing in soil and transplanting. During harvest time, the farm provides not just food for the mission, but also much-needed green space for its residents.

“I come out here to relax my mind, because I’ve got a lot going on with school and doing the Overcomers work,” Brown says. “Amongst the greenery, it’s very relaxing.”

Ng grew up on a farm in Singapore, where her mother farmed orchids until the government relocated their village to build an army base. She studied graphic design, moving to Philadelphia to pursue study in 3-D imaging—a skill that’s informed her visual and installation work and helped her combine her passions for growing food and making art. In Philadelphia, she’s grown food everywhere from the erstwhile Broad and South community garden to Streamside Farm at the Elkins Estate.

Ng’s residency is funded through the end of 2015, but she and her partners hope to build a team of volunteer gardeners who can maintain the “Grow Food Where You Live” space once Ng has moved on. “My ultimate goal, my vision, is to be able to help those homeless people off the street, [provide] training as farmers, and [for them to] be able to work or as their own—have their own urban farm in a vacant lot in the city, and then start as entrepreneurs.”