Friday, June 5, 2009

Where kids run the show

Philadelphia put in a strong bid for my favorite city on the trip so far. (The best ice cream thus far is an even closer race: a 3-way tie between Bedford, Carlisle, and Mechanicsburg. Ah, but I digress.) While only in the city for approximately 4 1/2 days, I managed to peek through many windows into a brighter, more sustainable future for our country. And as I suspected, it all came down to educating people, especially kids. And the best educating was done BY kids.

Monday morning, after a frustrating wild goose chase around the downtown municipal office building attempting to learn more about the mayor's proposed Greenworks Philadelphia project (I was sent to 3 different floors before I managed to locate the Office of Sustainability only to be told that there was nobody I could speak with and nobody could set up an appointment -- not particularly helpful or friendly, that receptionist), I had a cup of coffee (ohhhh, sweet elixir that I've been missing while camping) and headed to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society headquarters. I'd read up on some of the innovative programs and partnerships and was happily met by PHS's lovely Eileen who filled me in a bit more on the City Harvest partnership, which marvelously harnesses the energy and expertise of different groups around the city. Here's how it works: seedlings are started by inmates and 2 part-time PHS staff in the prison greenhouse (I fortuitously met Lisa, one of the two PHS prison gardeners, during a jaunt up to Weaver's Way later that afternoon); seedlings are then distributed to community gardens around the city; SHARE (Self Help and Research Exchange) connects the food growers at these gardens with local food cupboards; and the Health Promotion Council organizes nutrition workshops and develops recipes for the food distribution centers. Pretty smart collaboration, I think.

Oh, but it gets better. On Tuesday morning, after throwing together a quiche and doing a bit of laundry, Ollie and I made our way downtown to meet with Toby, the educational director of the much-lauded (and deservedly so, I would discover) Urban Nutrition Initiative. Toby filled me in on the history of the youth- and nutrition-focused organization and gave me an overview of some of the programs: fruit stands (one of the cornerstones of UNI's work -- more on this later), after school cooking clubs, high school gardens, outreach to teens by teens on nutrition-related topics, and the annual "Eat to Live" Festival (featuring food-related games, snacks, and garden tours at local schools). Toby introduced me to former social worker turned gourmet vegan chef turned educator, Kate, who brought me along to Huey Elementary where I saw one of UNI's 18 fruit stand programs in action. Kate brought the fruit, but the kids ran the show. From delegating tasks (tracking sales, making change, advertising their product -- it was a tough sell next to the italian ice and pretzel stand in the schoolyard) to accounting for the fruit costs on their balance sheet to determining what to do with the profits at the end of the school year, the kids seemed well beyond their 10 years. (One school's fruit stand team, for example, used their earnings to make smoothies for the entire student body. Very cool.) I snapped a quick pic of the kids selling a kiwi to one of their teachers. Too cute.

Next, Toby and Ollie and I walked over to University City High School where one of the students working on the urban garden gave me a tour of the site. We sampled various bits along the way -- strawberries, sorrel, mint -- and I probed his knowledge of garden- and cooking-related matters. A few students filled me in on the weekly mentoring program with nearby elementary school students. Again I was impressed. (Here's a pic of a few of the guys transfering some seedlings to bigger pots.) While at the school, I had a few moments to check in on an after school cooking and peer nutrition education group, led by UNI's capable John but, again, largely driven by students. I love it! (No picture, as I'd left my pitiful excuse for a camera -- the blackberry -- with Ollie in the garden.)

Unfortunately, Ollie and I got pretty lost in Wissahickon Park after that, so we got to Saul Agricultural High School too late to see the country's only student-run CSA in action. I did help harvest -- here's a pic with Lindsay and Nicole and a freshly-pulled rutabaga -- and weed a bit. (Wait, now I'm not sure if it's rutabaga or kohlrabi. Can you tell from the picture?) I hope to learn more about Saul's educational model and the recent shift toward organic vegetable production at some point. I did leave with a lovely bouquet of Russian kale and some bok choy, in any case, and made my way back downtown without incident to meet Alex and Tim for dinner. Over a lovely meal of largely organic and local fare at FARMacia, Alex filled me in on the exciting work he's been doing with "Grid" -- the Philly-focused sustainable living magazine he started this past fall. Great stuff. The latest issue focuses on the movement toward local food in the city: Grid's playing my tune.

And so, Wednesday morning came and I was treated to gorgeous weather on my way out of this wonderful city. Which is good, as Ollie and I were bound for navigational challenges that day....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. Andrew and I have hiked along Wissahickon Creek up above the bike trail. It's really beautiful there!

  2. What an amazing adventure so far, Ibiti. I check every day looking forward to your next report. You have learned much and shared it well. Thanks.
    Love, Tom


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