Interest in gardening has skyrocketed in the last few months here in the city of Philadelphia. In an escalating number of urban gardens with many people learning to grow their own food for the first time, community gardens’ staff and members are still working untiringly because, more than ever, community gardens are supporting city residents not only in their everyday meals but also socially and mentally. 

Community Gardens’ Essential Role

Image source: Flickr

Community gardens, as the name reveals, connect individuals who take part in co-creating and co-maintaining common green spaces in urban neighborhoods. In times of crisis, the spaces sustainably supply fresh produce to local food pantries and home kitchens. WWI and WWII witnessed the rise of victory gardens when the government encouraged planting at private residences and public parks. The idea was proved to be so efficient that at one point, home, school, and community gardeners were estimated to produce close to 40 percent of America’s fresh vegetables. The idea carried itself through the two oil crises of the 1970s, the stock market crash of 1987, the dot-com bubble of 2000: whenever the public food system was sensed to be overburdened in the near future, community gardens would prove to be the ultimate sustainable local food bank.

Regionally, at least two new groups were created recently to respond to the same need: Coatesville Victory Garden Club and the Cooperative Garden Commission . The Coatesville Club is joined by neighbors and friends with “No experience needed”, said Jennifer Aylward-Kasitz, the Facebook group creator, in the Inquirer. On a different scale, the Cooperative Garden Commission was started by Experimental Farm Network. On their informational page, Nate Kleinman, the project manager, urges volunteers to “help people provide themselves and their communities with healthy fresh food,[and] reduce our reliance on the faltering industrial food system”. 

Despite these grassroots ideas and movements, community gardens in Philly had a late start in the race against the spread of the coronavirus. Not until March 25th did the city’s Parks & Recreation Department specify regulations for gardens in their closure orders. “Philadelphia’s community gardens provide many residents opportunities for physical exercise and production of food,” said Maita Soukup, a spokesperson for the city’s Parks & Rec Department in the Philadelphia Tribune.  Meanwhile, in other states, community gardens have already taken the leading role. In Texas, Coppell Community Garden has already contributed more than 14,000 organic meals to 223 local families during the pandemic. In Cleveland, a college senior at Case Western Reserve University has been gardening and delivering free meals with her colleagues, and they have crowdfunded to start a community garden and enlarge the system (WHYY). In 2019, around 70% of the food grown at POP partner sites was harvested directly by the public or distributed through emergency food services, with the rest being used in neighborhood-based programs or sold at low cost to the public. “POP hopes that the amount of fresh organic produce grown and distributed by these partners will increase in this year”, said Kim Jordan, POP’s Co-Executive Director.

The role of community gardens in providing fresh produce is especially critical in this crisis because of a not unfamiliar problem: injustice in the food system. With the state and city-enforced COVID-19 shutdown, millions of workers have lost their jobs or have their hours slashed. Low-wealth households and communities, therefore, are the most vulnerable when they have to compete for scarce basic products. Community gardens during harvest time can provide free, sustainable, and fresh produce sources.

An early summer harvest from Ogden Orchard containing mulberries, gooseberries, raspberries, cherries and goumis.

In the fight against the novel coronavirus, community gardens yield many advantages: the short supply chain, meaning the food passes through far fewer hands than at retail outlets; the close distance to one’s home, for maximizing social distancing; and the simple harvesting or delivering system allows less contact with people. However, that does not mean that community gardens lose their social aspects. In contrast, they strengthen communities through inspirational acts of kindness. Public food banks, seed banks, and facilities swap booths are set up at community gardens. With fresh air, greens and beautiful blooming spring flowers, community gardens are therapeutic gathering open spaces for the locals who want a break from their social distancing time at home.

Challenges during the pandemic

Shared tools waiting to be distributed at a past work day at Hunting Park

The shared tools, small confined spaces, and the communal aspects of community gardens have created some challenges for the members, volunteers, and the public to get together. Because of the human-to-human transmission of the virus, many projects, meetings, and workshops have been canceled or postponed. During the month of March alone, POP had to postpone three ecological orchard care training sessions and two harvest-based workshops because they involved the gathering of large groups or group handling of food. Norris Square Neighborhood Project has canceled its after school gardening program for students, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Tree Tender plantings have been postponed, Historic Fair Hill also postponed their school garden club… no new in-person events have been posted for community gardens since the beginning of March. According to POP’s survey responses collected in late March and early April, at least one partner site, CHOP Karabots, is being used as a Coronavirus drive-thru testing location and therefore the orchard and gardens were temporarily inaccessible to the staff farmer.

However, regular plantings are still happening in nearly 400 communal green spaces across the city, following the protocols and guidance put together by the city, the State Department of Agriculture, and local garden advocates. According to these guidelines, shared tools and surfaces will need to be sanitized after every use, gardeners need to maintain six feet of distance, and all meetings or events are prohibited. Additionally, a maximum of five people will be allowed in a garden at a time. Adding to the effort, leaders from Soil Generation, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Neighborhood Gardens Trust, the Garden Justice Legal initiative and others with experience supporting urban agriculture in Philadelphia have compiled even more detailed recommendations.

As for POP, the survey responses show that the overwhelming majority of partner sites (10 of 13) have modified their programs or operations due to the pandemic. Of the 13 responses, Penn Park Orchard and Union Baptist Church Garden of Eden, are unfortunately fully closed due to the pandemic. While the rest anticipate being able to check on their orchards in the next two months, 75% of community orchard partners requested a monthly visit from POP staff to assist with orchard care needs. According to Kim Jordan, POP’s Co-Executive Director, typically, POP has provided a quarterly visit to partners but will do its best to help meet demand in this extraordinary time.

Adapting and Planning ahead

With the city under stay-home order and the uncertainty of the timeline for the outbreak control, community gardens and urban garden organizations are taking the initiative to adapt to the situation. Seeds and free resources are being delivered and published publicly for those wanting to start their own gardens. They have also taken their typical offline experience online to reach a wider at-home audience: Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is providing videos on how to properly plant, prune and care for trees, and POP is preparing its very first online workshop on Orchard Seasons & Pruning!

There have also been creative ideas suggested or practiced around the world that can be considered or implemented in Philly. Belmond-Klemme Community Garden in Iowa has been delivering garden starter kits to students willing to help when they’re at home. Each kit includes seeds, soil, and instructions on how to plant and maintain crops. The idea was that when kids can eventually come back, they can transplant their own plants into the community garden. In Palestine, the food justice problem revealed during the pandemic sparkled an idea of community urban water harvesting systems and ponds for fish rearing by poor farmers. Innovations and initiatives are being constantly produced to help communities fight against the crisis.

The pandemic has indeed posed some challenges for community gardens, but it also provides an environment for community gardens to thrive through strengthened human connections, environmental and community awareness.

This blog post was prepared by POP 2020 Outreach & Communications Intern Ngoc Pham.

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