When Urbanstead founder Lisa Gaidanowicz was given a plot of land in Francisville to create a farm a few years ago, she didn’t realize it might be the first time neighborhood residents saw food coming from soil.
“To you and me, an urban farm is a really big garden,” she said. “You don’t really find room to grow food in the city.”
Now, thanks to donations and financial sponsors, Gaidanowicz said she hopes to start compensating unpaid workers and herself in the coming years. The Claneil Foundation, which supports nonprofits focused on health and sustainability, recently chose Urbanstead to receive a $16,000 grant to help it operate for the next two years.
Located on the 1700 block of Wylie Street in a senior community, Urbanstead aims to teach leadership and working skills to community members through urban agriculture.
Residents didn’t have much interest in the project at its start, Gaidanowicz said, until a little girl – a granddaughter of one of the residents – asked to help.
“I grabbed [a carrot] out of the ground and rinsed it off and handed it to her,” Gaidanowicz said. “And she was like, ‘That’s dirty, that’s not a carrot.'”
That idea that food comes from the ground hadn’t occurred to the girl, Gaidanowicz said.
This lack of thinking about food was one of the reasons Penelope Giles, executive director of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp., showed Gaidanowicz the space three years ago.
“There are folks who haven’t seen their food before it hits the table,” Giles said. “They’ve never had any part of that happening before.”
The access to clean and sustainable food is something the neighborhood needed, she said, as well as the skill- and community-building aspect of the project.
Once the garden got big enough, Gaidanowicz needed extra hands to keep it running. She looked at programs like WorkReady, which pairs Philadelphia teenagers with organizations who need workers.
This is how Eric Daniels, a former longtime intern, found his passion. Daniels was paired with Urbanstead early on and connected instantly with the organization and with farming. He said he learned the physical skills of farming and about a lifestyle of health and healthy eating.
“I grew up in the type of neighborhood where you don’t play outside,” he said. “Being at the farm was therapeutic – I was actually able to breathe in it.”
With the help of interns and volunteers, Urbanstead runs a weekly food stand in the neighborhood and will participate in more farmer’s markets and community gatherings this year.
“We’d love it to be profitable, but it’s not,” Gaidanowicz said. “But what it does is encourages idealism, it encourages all these things – community building, health, sense of safety for a lot of our city kids.”
– Text, video and photos by Paige Gross