Germantown is known for its mix of houses, apartments, and row homes, as well as for its variety of green spaces.
And in that green space, neighbors — from the novice grower to the experienced farmer — have been catalyzed by the Covid-19 outbreak to start growing food, for themselves and others.
“ Honestly, I just really saw so many inspiring efforts, especially around food and the giving of it for free, and I just wanted to grow free food for people because of the crisis,” said Jasmine Thompson.
Thompson grew up in East Germantown near Stenton and Wister. She has a full time job working in community food systems at the Food Trust, but also created Philly Forests. Originally it was her personal landscaping business.
When the pandemic began, she adapted her plans.
“So many of my family members and friends lost their jobs because of this,” Thompson said. She knew she wanted to grow food and give it away, so she approached Awbury Agricultural Village, an area in the Awbury Arboretum that had some available land. Projects that were philanthropic in nature could apply to grow on the lots, so Philly Forests became a food growing project.
She was able to procure a lot, with access to a small greenhouse area. She paid a reduced fee for the entire growing season, and even with a late start into preparation, plans on growing a variety of vegetables.
She also hopes to include a combination of harvest-your-own days and free boxes of fresh produce delivered in Germantown, with volunteers on board to help with the operation.
There are no eligibility guidelines. Thompson is still trying to figure out how to make sure boxes of food will get to the most vulnerable in the neighborhood — older folks who can’t leave home and the immunocompromised. Getting the word out about the program is also something she is thinking about. Right now, information is only available through social media.
But it’s not just experienced farmers that are growing food. Kristen O’Guin is a sexuality educator in Mt. Airy. Dwendolyn Lloyd is a pastry chef and Sid Bailey is an online translator, both from Germantown. All three of them decided this was a good time to start growing.
Bailey knew that it was important for him and his family to have access to fresh foods. He also felt the experience itself was valuable.
“I think in most of this neighborhood there’s enough space to have food production in the area,” Bailey said. “It’s not only about safety and resilience, but also growing food is a lot of fun.”
“It’s so nice to get food fresh from your garden or your neighbor’s garden,” he continued. “It makes you connected to your food, and the quality.”
Dwendolyn Lloyd does some type of gardening every year, but this year she was especially inspired to become more active. “Now I have a lot more time… I don’t know what is happening in the future so let’s start planting more fruits and veggies.” She helps out with her next door neighbors’ gardens and is beginning to share seeds, and trying to plan for what seems like an unpredictable future.
Most of Lloyd’s family from Germantown has grown food, especially her sister Amanda. “My sister grows a lot of food, she has an empty lot next to her house, “ said Lloyd. The lot isn’t owned by anybody as far as they know, and Amanda cleaned it up years ago and started planting. Amanda now gardens the lot every year, and is thinking about adding chickens this year.
Food insecurity and fear of our industrial food chains and food systems being interrupted or infected has resulted in these kind of responses before.
George Boudreau, a history and research fellow at University of Pennsylvania, recalls some of what he refers to as the “second founding of the Germantown area”. Boudreau says during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, many people fled from downtown and started camping in the area along the Schuylkill. Wealthier folks rented apartments and houses in the greener spaces of Germantown.
“People moved up here because it provided health and well being,” Boudreau continued. “People were up here growing food and taking it down to the city.”