Seeds of Change: A Farm Grows in Chester
By Caitlin McCabe
Pedaling wildly along her block in Chester, Jade Mills approached the chain-link fence, dropped her bike, and sprinted toward a picnic table lined with bins of fruit.
“What’s this?” the 5-year-old said, plopping a plump cherry into her mouth as she wiggled onto a bench alongside her friends. “I’ve never had one of these before.”
“It’s a raspberry,” replied one friend.
“No, it’s a crop,” said another.
“What’s a crop?” Mills asked.
“A crop, remember, is another word for plant,” answered Terrence Topping-Brown, a 24-year-old who, for the afternoon, would be kids’ mentor, their teacher, their playmate. He waved a bag of seeds in front of them. “Now who’s ready for today?”
It was Tuesday afternoon on the Ruth L. Bennett Community Farm. And for the kids on the block, it was time to work.
For more than a decade, the acre at the back of the Ruth L. Bennett Homes on Chester’s west side sat vacant – overgrown and untouched – flanked by public housing on either side. But new life has sprouted at the site, and the once-forsaken parcel has joined a growing urban-farm movement nationwide.
In 2008, the Chester Housing Authority, the Delaware County city’s public housing agency, had an idea: Since many residents did not have the space to plant their own gardens, the authority would revitalize the acre for them, building an urban farm.
Over the years, the farm expanded slowly: just a handful of trees, some garden beds, and a few crops planted sporadically – until this year. This spring, Topping-Brown, of Upper Darby Township, took the reins, and alongside students from Swarthmore College, bolstered the farm’s offerings within months.
Now, more than 70 raised garden beds sit on the land, yielding more than 20 different crops – a sweeping variety of everything from cucumbers to kale to sweet potatoes. Nearly 160 blueberry bushes line the grounds. A greenhouse stands prominently – and another is in the works.
The open land is critical for Chester, the impoverished city along the Delaware River that for 12 of the last 15 years was deemed a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today, only one supermarket operates in the city of 34,000. And in a town where one-third of residents live below the poverty line – many of whom do not have access to a car – obtaining healthy local food is vital.
For Topping-Brown, an employee of the Urban Tree Connection, a Philadelphia nonprofit focused on urban farming, the farm isn’t just about the food. It’s about the community. And the best place to start, he said, is with the kids of Chester.
On a typical day on the community farm, as many as 12 to 15 kids voluntarily tend to the land, some as young as 4, others as old as 10. Their duties are wide-ranging: Some scatter seeds or water the grounds. Others pull weeds. A few – those less interested in farming and more interested in playing – dig for worms and splash in puddles. Still, all are welcome.
“They’re a bit destructive,” Topping-Brown said, laughing. “But that’s what this is here for. This is their farm – for them to explore and learn and be as involved as possible.”
Kids are welcome every day, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Topping-Brown runs an official program. He provides fresh fruit and water in the afternoons, typically accompanied by a lesson on topics such as sustainability or healthy eating.
“It’s important that we’re here, even just to provide a healthy snack or water to the kids in this neighborhood,” Topping-Brown said. “Plus, if we can teach them how to be a source of healthy food, that’s even better.” Across the region and nationwide, the urban farming movement is burgeoning. In the Philadelphia area, the Urban Tree Connection has converted 29 abandoned lots into more than seven acres of farmland and green spaces in total.
The nonprofit joined the Chester Housing Authority to work on the farming site last year.
“We’ve taken a collection of sites that were abandoned, crime-ridden land and transformed them into sites of production,” said Skip Wiener, founder and executive director of the Urban Tree Connection. “It’s not a casual couple of beds. Yes, you’re teaching kids how to grow, but it’s a production farming system where thousands of pounds of food are being produced.”
In areas such as Chester, Wiener said, large-scale farming production is a rarity. But it’s a lifeline. Already, the Chester farm has harvested more than 100 pounds of food; 57 have been distributed.
The kids have learned to harvest, wash, and package the crops. Some of the harvest is sold in the neighborhood for $1 a bag; some is sold at the monthly Chester Farmers’ Market at the city’s Community Hospital. All revenue goes back to the project.
The project presents a stark contrast to the period between 2001 and 2013 when Chester residents operated with little access to any kind of produce, lacking a large-scale grocer like an Acme or ShopRite. Only corner and convenience stores, many without fruits or vegetables, dotted the city.
Finally, in 2013, a supermarket arrived: Fare & Square, the nonprofit grocery store operated by Philabundance, a nonprofit food bank. The grocer – the first nonprofit supermarket in the U.S. – has been a boon to the struggling city: In 2014, the market provided food to 7,000 households. That same year, $200,000 of fresh produce and $650,000 of fresh meat was sold.
“By opening this market, we hope to get other people to open up small stores in the area,” said Glenn Bergman, executive director of Philabundance. “It’s part of a whole movement in Chester.”
And urban farming is a big part of that, Bergman said.
Topping-Brown hopes to expand the farm’s offerings and get more adults involved, too.