On Wednesdays, the earthy smell of fresh basil permeates NSC’s office, drawing staff away from their desks to the main lobby. Here they find the Refugee Farm Stand, a weekly farmer’s market that has taken place at NSC since June 29, 2016. It’s not just NSC staff that are drawn to the farm stand. Clients line up, eager to have a small taste of home and cook with vegetables from their homeland – roselle, bitter melon, mustard greens… Congolese children grin as they bite into the first harvested African eggplants of the season; in fact, the first African eggplants harvested in all of Philadelphia.
NSC has operated two refugee gardens in South Philadelphia for several years now – Growing Home Garden since 2011, and Growing Together Garden since 2015. To date, these gardens have met the nutritional needs of refugees, created a safe community for newcomers, and provided a space for families to put down roots as they begin to call Philadelphia home.
In 2016, several gardeners were granted with an additional opportunity – to participate in the Beginner Farmer’s Training program, provided by Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Through this program, the twelve current participants, all socially disadvantaged individuals of Philadelphia including three refugees, learn about organic crop planning, propagation, planting techniques, harvest and post-harvest handling, farm marketing, and business development. The three refugee participants, now entrepreneurial growers, decided to start a farm stand at NSC, with the hopes of possibly expanding at a later point to the Point Breeze neighborhood where the Growing Together Garden resides. All of the produce in the farm stand is planted, grown, and harvested by these three individuals, using the skills and knowledge they acquired in training, supplemented by the farming experience they bring with them from Bhutan, Burma, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Those eggplants that children happily bit into this week came from the seeds of a single African eggplant in Concord, New Hampshire. The 168 seeds from that single eggplant are now being harvested for the first time in Philadelphia. Many of the other crops are ones that originally came from refugees’ countries of origin, seedlings that were carefully preserved and that have now become a part of Philadelphia’s biodiversity.
Food access is a crucial part to refugees’ integration into their communities. Many are resettled into low-income neighborhoods and food deserts, meaning it is difficult to find affordable and nutritious food within a reasonable distance. With many refugees arriving with a number of health issues and living close to or below the poverty line, being able to provide their families with healthy and reasonably priced food is of utmost importance. The gardens have granted the opportunity to those who work at the gardens to grow their own food.
With the new farm stand, the availability of affordable and healthy food has been extended to those who don’t have plots at the gardens or who do not live in the same neighborhoods as the gardens. Now, clients coming into NSC’s office are able to benefit from the ample produce that the entrepreneurial growers bring in each week: green onions, several varieties of kale, beets, collard greens, peppers, and so much more. By planting seedlings and providing this produce to the community through the farm stand, biodiversity in Philadelphia’s food systems is increased and gastronomic traditions from around the world are protected. In other words, the entrepreneurial growers are giving a true gift not only to the refugees served by NSC, but Philadelphia’s residents as well.
When so much is unfamiliar, when the language is new, the urban environment is so different, the people surrounding you are not your family and friends but strangers, it can be momentous to bite into a bitter African eggplant for the first time in months or years, to be able to bring that to your family and cook a familiar dish you haven’t cooked in so long. Not only do memories come flooding back, but your new home begins to feel a bit more like that – home.