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Philadelphia has a number of food deserts.
Residents in these areas tend to be low income and have more than a mile between them and the nearest food market. For those without access to a car, that’s a 20-minute bus ride to the nearest grocery store.
The drive to pursue fresh food options decreases when these food desserts become ripe with fast food and convenience stores primarily serving processed food. With one out of two children in these neighborhoods considered overweight or obese, it’s clear that something must change.
Founded in 2007, the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP) began with a mission to answer Philadelphia residents’ need to access fresh fruit.
In contrast to the food deserts sprawled across the city, POP sought to create community gardens and "food forests." That mission has blossomed into 62 community-owned orchards, 1,258 trees planted, 26 unique lessons for students, 1,200 volunteers engaged during Harvest Weeks, and 13 city school orchards.
“All of the orchards are owned by the community partners and they work out how the food is distributed. Sometimes, they’re sold at a low-cost level to the community,” says POP’s Education Director Alyssa Schimmel.
Other times fruit is harvested for emergency food services or brought into classrooms as part of food education programs.
Schimmel has been with the organization since 2015, when she first began as an intern, planting figs, pawpaws, persimmons, elderberries, and gooseberries among a variety of other fruits, vegetables, herbs, and perennials.
If you’re unfamiliar with these fruits, you’re not alone.
“A lot of times when people hear orchards, they think pears or apples. But, blueberries are native to the New Jersey region. In the Philadelphia region, pawpaw, juneberry, persimmon, and bee balm do really well,” Schimmel says.
Experiencing the process of planting and tasting these "exotic" local plants are an important part of children’s food education. It helps them build an understanding of and a connection to their ecosystem.
“Watching a seed or plant come to full form also expands their ability to taste new fruits and vegetables,” Schimmel says.
Choosing fruits that will ultimately land in the hands of children who are at risk for food-insecurity begins with understanding how well these plants will fare in Philadelphia’s ecosystem.
“When designing orchards, we’ll talk about how to use resources like water, energy, pollinators, and the waste stream. What are choices that we can make to be healthier for ourselves and our environment?”
One of the schools' sites has partnered with Trash Academy, an organization that educates communities on solutions to reduce and manage waste in their neighborhood. Another orchard site planted sunflowers for their ability to pull heavy metals from the soils.
Schimmel, who creates the 40+ lesson plans available on POP’s website, has created "honeybee sensory lessons" and "bee hotels" for students to understand how the local pollinators are important to the environment. It’s all part of a style of planting that is focused on building a resilient ecosystem.
“Students have a difference sense of respect and appreciation as they care for plants and start to see themselves as part of the ecosystem,” Schimmel says.
For students at the kindergarten level, POP focuses on getting them outside to touch, tend, and harvest plants. High school students have the opportunity to be entrepreneurs, harvesting weeds for medicinal uses and making teas that they sell in local CSAs. Students from the Overbrook School for the Blind have sensory lessons created just for them.
In the area following the "No child left behind" ethos, POP has made a direct effort to engage Philadelphia’s youth from all backgrounds.
Schimmel adds, “We’re geared around how to educate children about our ecosystem and how to care for plants in an inclusive way.”
Lindsay Christinee is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and screenwriter with a passion for sustainability, wellness, and the entertainment industry. Her work has been featured in The Marketplace, Thailand Tatler, and Fashion Weekly.
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