A fresh salad with leafy greens, juicy tomatoes, crisp cucumbers and zucchini is a refreshing meal for a hot summer day. Would you believe that many Philadelphians are enjoying delicious vegetables grown on a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) lot, next to the Market-Frankford Line (MFL) station?
The Walnut Hill Community Farm at 46th and Market Streets is marking its second season. Operated by The Enterprise Center Community Development Corp. (TEC-CDC), the farm is adjacent to the 46th Street MFL station, in a lot used by SEPTA during the extensive “El” reconstruction project in West Philadelphia. When the renovations were completed in 2009, SEPTA was left with a vacant plot of land and looking for a way to turn the location to a community asset.
Enter CDC, whose leadership was developing a plan to teach the neighborhood’s residents about sustainable food production. With the SEPTA lot available, CDC would be able to give residents a “hands-on” learning experience at the farm.
In May 2010, the agency and CDC signed a lease for the land — for $1 a year — for up to 30 years. “SEPTA is a committed stakeholder in the City of Philadelphia’s Greenworks goal to bring fresh food to its residents through a formal goal established in the organization’s Sustainability Program Plan,” said Marion Coker, SEPTA’s manager of strategic business planning and sustainability. “Our collaboration with the Walnut Hill Community Farm is based on a mutual understanding that improved access to food and transit contributes to the development of vibrant and healthy communities.”
In two years, the farm has grown, literally and figuratively. “Last year, we harvested about 650 pounds of food,” said Allison Blansfield, CDC’s farm and youth program manager. “This year, we should double our production. We were also able to hire 10 teens this year for our food ambassadors program, an increase over the four we had last year.”
The youths are divided into teams and learn about the farming industry, from planting and harvesting to bringing the food to market and managing sales and other business matters. The Farm’s “Market Team” brings fresh produce to SEPTA’s headquarters every other Wednesday. In true SEPTA fashion, the team travels not by pick-up truck, but on MFL trains, wheeling carts loaded with boxes full of herbs, tomatoes, corn, kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, onions and more through the El station’s turnstiles and onto the train for the 30-plus block trek from West Philly to Center City.
In addition to selling produce to SEPTA’s employees, Walnut Hill Farm also operates a community farm stand at 46th and Market and sold shares of its harvest to neighbors that participate in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. The Farm accepts cash, credit/debit cards, Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT)/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds (formerly food stamps) and senior subsidies.
To keep Walnut Hill’s crops flourishing, CDC has received the support numerous organizations, including the USDA, for items ranging from soil, seeds, a shed, fruit bushes and orchard trees to construction assistance and volunteers. SEPTA connected its 46th Street Station downspout to the Farm’s rainwater collection cisterns and installed shelving on the side of the station building to hold solar panels that will power the water pump that operates the Farm’s irrigation system (designed by Drexel University Engineering students).
“Walnut Hill Farm is a wonderful example of what can be accomplished when the community, academic institutions and government agencies collaborate,” said Blansfield. “We are grateful to SEPTA for helping us get the project off the ground by leasing the vacant land and for providing their continued support, from offering assistance with the solar panels and irrigation system to allowing us to sell our produce at its headquarters.”
“Little did we realize how a vacant parcel of land could be transformed into such a vibrant self-sustaining model for neighborhood transformation,” said Coker. “And the farmers’ market at our 1234 Market Street headquarters has truly brought new meaning to sustainability and the cradle-to-cradle concept — fresh food from repurposed SEPTA land via the SEPTA system to SEPTA employees.”
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