Urban Tree Connection’s Neighborhood Foods

Urban Tree Connection’s Neighborhood Foods

A casual observer might register the lush green plots throughout West Philadelphia’s Haddington neighborhood as a simple community gardening program. In reality, they are the anchors to a hugely successful effort that has more branches than a tomato plant in the middle of summer.

The gardens are among the palpable signs that people care about their community and are working together to make it a safe, healthy, viable place for families. Two groups, Neighborhood Foods and its parent organization, Urban Tree Connection, were formed to address a low-income community’s persistent demand to revitalize abandoned lots and repurpose them as food production gardens. In addition, they sought to find an ethically responsible and economically viable way to help the community access fresh, healthy and affordable food. As part of the process, they wanted to create meaningful local jobs and training opportunities.

Lisa, a grandmother who grew up in the neighborhood, said the happy safe place of her childhood spiraled into decline when drug dealers and other unsavory characters took over.  Ten years ago, she joined a small group of residents working to reclaim the community for the honest, hard-working people who call it home. “We’re bringing childhood back to this neighborhood,” she said.

With tenacity and persistence, Urban Tree Connection transformed one lot after another into productive gardens, bursting with kale, peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes. The crown jewel is a three-quarter acre farm surrounded by 60 houses.  Youth are employed to work the land and harvest the bounty. Residents can buy the organic produce at a subsidized weekly market at the entrance to the farm. Neighborhood Foods sells the abundance to farmers’ markets and high-end restaurants.

The neighborhood is a documented food desert, with no grocery store access to fresh produce. People rely on processed foods and there is a resultant high rate of obesity, diabetes and hypertension. But the fresh foods have a measurable health effect, and growing and preparing the produce has also brought the community together as a strong, energized group. “There’s a camaraderie and closeness again in the neighborhood and that’s a wonderful thing about the co-op,” Lisa said.

And, who knew that fresh vegetables are an intergenerational conversation starter? In introducing their children and grandchildren to the foods of their youth, older residents also have a great opportunity to share family stories and farming expertise.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has supported the community-building work of the Urban Tree Connection and its newest venture, the Neighborhood Foods cooperative.

This post is also available in: Spanish