For over a decade, Chester, Pennsylvania was a complete food desert – the city, which sits just outside of Philadelphia and is home to approximately 37,000 people, did not even have one supermarket.
Ten years ago, Chester Housing Authority (CHA) Executive Director Steven A. Fischer realized that CHA was sitting on a few acres of land that wasn't exactly prime for building additional housing, so he drummed up interest in a community garden.At first, it seemed mostly an experiment. CHA used the garden as an educational tool to teach residents how to grow food with the help of two Swarthmore College students.
Each year, the garden grew, and the few acres of land evolved into a small, working organic farm dubbed the Ruth L. Bennett Homes Community Farm, after the 261-unit public housing development next to which it stands, producing significantly more food, and without the use of pesticides. Seeing the potential for filling funding gaps, "Perhaps that was pie-in-the-sky," Fischer said. "It had the potential to bring in revenues by selling the produce in addition to what was mostly being given away to residents," he added.As the garden grew, CHA began appearing at local farmer's markets and marketing its produce to local businesses.
Eventually, they approached their first potential client, Fare & Square, a new independent local store in Chester purporting to be the nation's first nonprofit supermarket. While they serve as a regular food store to many customers, they also give food away to needy families and make many items available to all customers for free. Fare & Square is supported by Philabundance, the Philadelphia region's largest hunger relief organization, which provides emergency food and access to services to three quarters of a million people at risk of hunger and food insecurity in the Delaware Valley. When CHA approached Fare & Square about providing them with locally-grown organic produce, the food store accepted and a business partnership was born.
They celebrated the joint venture with a ribbon-cutting event on June 6 when they introduced the new produce section of the store. While the revenue earned from the partnership will help maintain the two-acre property, CHA will continue to offer the farm as an educational resource.While CHA has only been selling its food to Fare & Square for a few months, the relationship quickly led to another opportunity to sell to another local food store, Swarthmore Cooperative. CHA now sells produce and flowers to both businesses. The extra revenue is the beginning of tangible sustainability for the Bennett Farm.
In March, CHA decided to create a dedicated staff position to manage the program and hired Farm Manager Natania Schaumburg who in turn employs residents, as well as college and high school interns. Add to that the buy-in of Housing Director Norman Wise and his maintenance staff. They built a mobile market to sell produce directly to senior and disabled residents around town. "This is our first year of being in serious business," Fischer said. "We don't expect to make even the salary for the dedicated staff person yet. Starting this winter, we'll project out how long before we're profitable. But even if we fail as a business, we still will gain so much.
So many of the children who live in our housing authorities are learning a lifestyle that they're not being taught at home, and that's going to stay with them through life. Even if the farm doesn't turn into a financial windfall, it will have educated people on the importance of what they put in their bodies."Now that CHA has established the reputation of the farm locally, they are focused on getting their message out to the housing world.
CHA plans to apply for an award in innovative housing programs with the hope that recognition can help further their cause. "We believe, at least to our knowledge, that we're the first housing authority to do a deal like this," Fischer said. "If we're wrong, we'd love to hear from others because we would like to share experiences and benefit from what other PHAs have learned along the way..While Fischer has steered course toward new business ventures before, in all his years of managing housing authorities, this is the first time he has delved into agriculture.
CHA had to bring in other personnel to help staff learn how to navigate the business side of agriculture. But what was once an overgrown field of grass and weeds is now a sanctuary of produce and flowers with the potential to greatly expand."It's been a morale booster for us, and we needed that," said Fischer. "We're in a tough business. We deal with families with difficult problems every day. Adding this puzzle piece has been a healthy thing for everyone involved."