Pennsylvania Legacies #162: A Fruitful Endeavor

Many organizations are working to improve Philadelphians’ access to the outdoors and its associated benefits. Many others are focused on food equity, food sovereignty, and public health. One group — the Philadelphia Orchard Project — is doing all of the above. We speak with Executive Director Kim Jordan about their efforts to transform vacant lots into neighborhood green spaces that produce healthy food for residents.

Tree cover is essential to the health of cities. Trees manage heat, control stormwater runoff, and reduce air pollution. But not all urban neighborhoods have equal access to green spaces, and less tree cover in an urban neighborhood almost always correlates with lower incomes. This trend exists in most major cities, including Philadelphia, which has an estimated 40,000 vacant lots throughout the city.

Kim Jordan, Co-Executive Director of the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP), said these lots were one of the reasons for POP’s founding.

“The areas that had high numbers of vacant lots were also the areas of the city experiencing food apartheid, where they didn’t have access to grocery stories, fresh healthy produce, so the vision was to turn these vacant lots into productive food-growing spaces that could also provide jobs training to people that would maintain them and grow food and increase access to healthy food,” said Jordan.

Since it was founded fifteen years ago, POP has transformed dozens of vacant lots, and other sites like schoolyards, community gardens, and properties owned by houses of worship and the City of Philadelphia, into green, food-producing spaces. In total, POP supports 66 orchards, 50 of which they planted. POP provides training and plants to community partners, who are responsible for maintenance, harvesting, and food distribution.

The vision was to turn these vacant lots into productive food-growing spaces that could also provide jobs training to people…

“[Last year] the total harvest was around 6,000 pounds and almost half of it is distributed directly to the community for free,” said Jordan.

Like all nonprofits, POP has had to deal with new challenges in the past couple of years because of the pandemic. They had to cancel events and school education programs, and some partner organizations had lower capacity to care for their orchards. But they also launched new programs in 2020, like their Lead Orchard Volunteer program, which trains experienced volunteers to provide sites with extra support during plantings and public events. Lead Orchard Volunteers can receive a need-based seasonal stipend for their time.

“The goal is really be there to support the partners, be an additional level of support beyond POP staff, and to create stronger connections between volunteers and their local orchards. So ideally, we’re trying to find people that live in the same neighborhood as the orchard is located and by going there more frequently they’re developing that relationship with the partner and the people in their neighborhood,” said Jordan.

POP has received feedback in the past two years from volunteers about the mental health benefits of spending time in nature and supporting their community.

“Maybe people that hadn’t ever considered volunteering as a mental health benefit, we’ve definitely heard more of that in the past two years,” said Jordan. “Being able to be outside, to feel like they’re giving back to their community, to be able to taste food that they were able to grow, and to connect with other people in a relatively safe environment,  definitely have heard a lot more of that.”