In the Garden:
September, 2012
Regional Report

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Earth's Keepers in west Philadelphia combines urban farming, mentoring, and stewardship for preteens, teens, and the community.

Growing Organic with Earth's Keepers

Between the raised beds and the produce stand, three teenage gardeners take their positions. Do I know Carly Rae Jepson's song "Call Me Maybe", they ask. I shrug, looking puzzled. You'll recognize it, they assure me.

Someone's fingers snap them into motion. Arms and legs in synch, they dance and sing their version, "Food Justice Baby." They wrote and choreographed this variation at July's Rooted in Community Leadership Summit in Iowa.

Alia Walker hands me the summit's Youth Food Bill of Rights about community food security. In part, it reads "We envision a food system that will respect our identities while providing us equal access to basic human rights. We, the youth, are committed to these rights and believe that all people locally, nationally, and globally are entitled to healthy food."

Is this what organic gardening is coming too? If so, keep it coming!

Alia, Executive Director of Earth's Keepers, prefers the words organic Urban Farm. This corner property in Kingsessing, West Philadelphia is abuzz. Romane Fredericks, Haseena Hayes, and Zakiyah Hayes, each 15, are urban farmers in training. They sing, they dance, they pull weeds. They and other young people in Earth's Keepers Youth Agriculture and Entrepreneur program raise, enjoy, cook, sell vegetables and much more. They learn team work. "If one gardener can't do something, they team up to get the project done," Alia says.

"We plant, nurture, harvest, clean, package, and sell our organic produce. We do some cooking. We do stretches (to balance the hard work). We actively learn how to develop a business by selling the produce from the urban farm's stand," Alia continues. They also grow for local restaurants and individuals who want specialty vegetables such as a tender, fuzzy cucumber.

"Of course, we learn about nutrition -- the entire food system from seed to table," Alia adds.

Nearby, University of Pennsylvania student and art teacher Jacob Riukin invites 7-year-olds Misheidis Geraldino and Karel Freeman to show their broccoli and carrot drawings. This Free Library of Philadelphia, Kingsessing branch program teaches youngsters to draw, from the seed to the vegetable. Karel proudly offers his "Plant Book," his sketchbook of color-pencil garden art.

Alia and Earth's Keepers co-founder Safiyah Addul-Latif have a mutual vision for engaging young people. They've tapped into the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Garden Tenders and City Harvest programs. Philadelphia's Parks and Recreation Department provides land and other support. Several other diverse and vital partners assist.

Alia's conversation brings stewardship to mind. "Young people will be the next generation to maintain the earth. They need to know how. We need to pass the knowledge and information on to them. So they don't have to reinvent the wheel. They can make a better wheel."

Think synergy. Youth bring their energy, strength, and "knowledge from so many sources of information -- computer, cable TV. Though they don't have the experience of doing things," says Alia.

She, Safiyah, and volunteers "bring the experience and help them to develop the information they have in a way they can use. In urban farming, we teach them about entrepreneurship, respect for the earth. One of our models is 'make it better than it was when we got here' -- or at least the same."

Romane, Haseena, and Zakiyah walk me around the farm. Haseena lists ingredients for salsa they made in chef-to-be Romane's recent cooking class with tomatoes, garlic, and green onions. The hot version has jalapeno peppers; the sweet style has purple (chocolate) peppers.

Haseena appreciates "the rewarding feeling from watching your plants come up." Zakiyah likes "planting. Honeydew, squash, watermelon, tomatoes, peppers. We say 'In the name of God' when we put each plant in the ground."

Later Alia mentions the pleasure of watching them. "We pull in so many aspects of life from working on the farm. When they see the fruits of their labor, their excitement and empowerment are phenomenal."

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