Urbanstead: Cultivating in an Urban Garden Setting
Tucked behind a gated community at the corner of Ridge Avenue and Wylie Street in the burgeoning Francisville section of lower North Philadelphia, the Francisville Urban Farm and Orchard doesn’t look like your typical farm. The small space, bristling with planters full of vegetable seedlings and leafy greens, is home to Urbanstead, a project founded by Lisa Gaidanowicz that isn’t your typical non-profit venture, either. Its mission? Achieving food security by uniting the Philly community and creating programs to involve the city’s vulnerable youth through the medium of urban farming.
It’s an ambitious goal for a city where 22 percent of its inhabitants are “food insecure,” meaning they at times lack access to enough food to lead a healthy, active life. That means more than 1 in 5 Philadelphians routinely go hungry, according to a 2013 report from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. It also makes Philadelphia the city with the highest rate of food insecurity across the whole state. The city’s issue of hunger — and the myriad socioeconomic, educational and racial factors that contribute to it — may seem daunting to tackle, but Gaidanowicz sees within it an opportunity to affect real change.
A Safe Place To Work, Play And Grow
Urbanstead was created by Gaidanowicz as a safe place for Philadelphia’s vulnerable youth to consume food grown with their own hands, an opportunity that few urban dwellers get to experience. Through the teen-focused Youth Plots program, kids and teens come to the Francisville Farm and Orchard to gain hands-on experience in the gardens. Peas, cabbage, spinach and herbs are grown on the farm, as well as various fruit in the adjacent orchard.
“With the Youth Plots program, kids are basically getting their hands in the dirt and learning where food comes from,” said Gaidanowicz. Participants learn about plant botany, garden construction, and healthy food choices while gaining life skills and emotional support that affect and improve many other areas of their lives.
We’re Going To Be Okay
It hasn’t always been a smooth journey for the 3-year old Urbanstead initiative. This year, an early frost took about half of the plants that were housed in Urbanstead’s pop-up greenhouse, but the setback hardly fazed Gaidanowicz. “The whole reason I chose urban agriculture as a means of reaching young people is for both the delight and the disappointment,” she wrote on the group’s Facebook page. “Because when something fails, you learn to do it differently the next time. Each year we learn a little more and we keep building and planting and growing because we’re human beings and that’s what we do.”
It’s this tenaciousness that has guided Gaidanowicz down the path to Urbanstead. With a background in IT, she moved to Philly in 2008 after getting laid off from a telecommunications company. She spent 4 years at Yes Philly, a youth organization that focuses on high school completion, where she helped create a career-training program in IT. That led to teaching, which Gaidanowicz discovered was a passion, but after leaving Yes Philly, she struggled to find work. Gaidanowicz, who is college educated but without a degree, couldn’t get anyone to hire her.
“I was in my mid-30s at the time, and I started thinking, if this is hard for me… to find a job doing what I wanted to do, how hard must it be for kids of color who are barely getting through the Philly school system?”
It’s a valid observation for a city with a public school system that has struggled to provide quality education to its inhabitants. “College isn’t for everybody,” said Gaidanowicz, “and I really started thinking, how could we do career development and find alternatives to College? I come from a punk rock background and thought, if no one’s going to hire me, I’ll start my own non-profit!”
The Right Place At The Right Time
Gaidanowicz caught a break while in a coffee shop, where she was overheard talking about the idea for Urbanstead by Penelope Giles, Executive Director for the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation (FDNC). The FDNC had the space, Gaidanowicz had the initiative, and together, the idea came to fruition. While Urbanstead is currently under fiscal sponsorship from FDNC, they’re in the process of filing to become their own non-profit.
The timing couldn’t be better, since Urbanstead is ramping up its Seedscapes program, a collaboration with Cloud 9 Rooftop Farm. Seedscapes works with a slightly older demographic (ages 16-21) than the Youth Plots program and prioritizes career training. Program participants build food-producing spaces in the ground, on rooftops and in aquapoonics systems throughout the city for clients. They receive extensive training in urban agriculture techniques while developing valuable entrepreneurial and employment skills in team collaboration, project planning, customer service, and time management. They even have the chance to sell their produce at a weekly youth-operated farm stand.
One of the program’s success stories is Marquis James, a Seedscapes alum from last year who Gaidanowicz plans to hire as a Lead Youth Farm Manager. The quiet 20-year-old will soon be placed into a leadership role, where he’ll mentor younger participants, and Gaidanowicz has high hopes for him. “I think his whole life, he’s been told to do construction or some other type of manual labor, but that’s not what he wants to do,” said Gaidanowicz. “He wants to do voice acting for a living, and he should follow that. He’s taking theater classes now.”
A Collaborative Effort
The future looks bright for Urbanstead and Gaidanowicz, who is actively seeking to increase community partnerships and involvement. Most recently, she’s been working with the Police Athletic League (PAL) to team up with local high schools and increase community awareness for Urbanstead’s vision.
“That’s my long-term goal, to really get this run by young people. It’s great for me to be up there teaching, and I could do it for hours. But it’s not going to have the same effect as young people teaching other young people. I want to give empowerment to the kids that we’re working with,” said Gaidanowicz.