In a remote corner of Penn Park, a woman sits in the dirt, warmed from the sun despite the November chill, digging into several beds of fresh vegetables: cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, okra, bell peppers, and more. Wedged between a wide field of grass and an orchard, the farm is secluded, but the surrounding city is a constant presence. Every once in a while, a train rumbles by loudly, making it difficult to talk without raising your voice. Nonetheless, a feeling of calm lingers amongst the dirt and produce.
This is the Penn Park Farm, a little–known addition to the Wellness at Penn Office and Penn’s first campus urban farm. The farm was established in fall of 2020, after Philadelphia resident Lila Bhide pitched the concept in Penn’s public call for project proposals, “Your Big Idea and Wellness Initiative.” Since then, the Penn Park Farm has worked to immerse students in a natural oasis away from the chaos of the city, teach sustainable farming practices, and address food insecurity within the Penn community.
Food insecurity is a major concern on college campuses. A study conducted in 2019 by Temple University across more than 100 institutions showed that 45% of the individuals surveyed had experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days. The chronic nature of food insecurity among college students was exacerbated by the pandemic. Despite its wealth, Penn is not immune to this paradigm: Many students on campus attest to regularly experiencing food insecurity. The University’s location impacts the issue as well, particularly considering the rate of food insecurity in Philadelphia is about 21%.
The Penn Park Farm is a fully functional farm, growing produce for three seasons out of the year, while simultaneously offering a variety of student opportunities such as class visits and events on organic growing, food justice, and sustainability. Volunteers can sign up to harvest produce to be donated to the HUP Pantry and the West Philly chapter of Food Not Bombs Solidarity, as well as to help with general tasks to ensure the health of the farm such as planting and fertilizing beds, pruning plants, and maintaining equipment.
During the fall 2021 semester, the Penn Park Farm hosted a Harvest Festival and an informational workshop explaining how to register for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. SNAP is a large–scale program offered by the federal government which provides Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, essentially debit cards, to low–income families and individuals for the purchase of healthy foods in participating stores. Fewer than 4 out of 10 students who are eligible for SNAP receive benefits largely because they are unaware the program exists. Few know that most students who participate in work–study likely qualify for SNAP.
“I really enjoyed the sense of purpose and fulfillment that you get on a daily basis from doing this work,” she says. “As a young person, that can be hard to come by. A lot of times in a school setting, you might not get a grade back for a long time or you might work really hard and have everything you did reduced to one number or one letter. I think [farming] was very fulfilling and gave me a lot more confidence.”
The timing of the pandemic and the relative distance of the Penn Park Farm from the main portion of Penn’s campus limits its visibility. Nevertheless, Bhide maintains her appreciation of the land on which the farm sits: “It does grant a lot of freedom and space for people … People can be themselves here in a way that maybe they would feel a bit more self–conscious about in the Quad.”
At the farm, students can experience the positive impacts on mental and physical health of immersion in nature and learn to implement restorative practices for coping with stress, such as spending time outside and building community.
“In the process of farming, you're learning things about the soil, you're recognizing differences from places that you've lived or worked before … I think that a really essential thing that community gardens offer is a space for people to … [work] together with the group and with the community that collaborates to care for the space.” says Megan Kassabaum, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology.
Not only is Penn Park Farm unique in its existence, but it is also notably unique in the execution of its mission. The Penn Park Farm operates using uniquely sustainable farming protocols. In addition to growing all produce organically, the farm uses low–till practices, a method which minimizes disturbance of the soil, as a form of climate change mitigation.
“Learning these hands–on tools in an area that's sometimes neglected in the climate change conversation makes an impact on how [students] view their studies moving forward,” says Bhide.
Food insecurity is a complex and multifaceted issue, particularly within a wealthy college atmosphere. Socioeconomically speaking, Penn’s student body lacks diversity. More students hail from the top 10% than the bottom 90%, and about 71% of students are within the top income quintile. “Penn and most college campuses are always kind of envisioned as like a bubble or an island,” says Kassabaum. “I think what that does is it creates a culture of invisibility for people who are struggling with [food insecurity] on campus, because it's not the version of the issue that people are most familiar with.”
As Justin Seward (C ‘25), a student intern at the Penn Park Farm, explains, “Usually, if [students] are food insecure, they're not living on campus; they're either a junior or senior, and a lot of graduate students are food insecure as well. You can find food programs outside of our little University City, so they can seek out other resources, but the bad thing about West Philly is … there's a lot of food insecurity already there, so it's just adding on to the problem that already exists.”
The network of organizations fighting food insecurity in West Philadelphia is often small and community–driven, such as community fridges, and is unable to support the needs of both neighborhood residents and students at Penn. A large portion of the community struggles with poverty, coupled with the presence of food deserts, areas without grocery stores that offer healthy food options, creating acute food insecurity.
Kassabaum adds that stigma is an additional struggle faced by students experiencing food insecurity. “An underlying potential step towards a solution is to work towards destigmatizing the idea of being food insecure, to sort of separate it from other things that people worry about,” she says. “It truly relies on the entire community to make the issue more visible, to talk about it in a non–stigmatized way, to openly share one's own issues around food.”
The Penn Park Farm is adopting a welcoming, destigmatized approach to minimizing food insecurity on campus through Greenfield Greens, a collaborative effort with the Greenfield Intercultural Center (GIC). During the fall growing season, the GIC provided a limited number of free bags of fresh vegetables to first–generation, low–income students who signed up via the GIC newsletter every week, courtesy of the Penn Farm.
Sophie Tannenbaum, a master’s student at the School of Social Policy & Practice and graduate assistant at the GIC, observes the impact that the GIC can have in providing a stigma–free space for students experiencing food insecurity: “I don't want to speak for any students that are in that position, but from what I've noticed, as a graduate student and a part of the team [at the GIC], is we get a lot of feedback that says, ‘This is a place we can be comfortable.’ This is a place where our services are normalized.”
The GIC also offers a food pantry for students that does not involve a sign–up process, but such non–perishable foods must be supplemented with fresh produce to maintain a healthy diet. Currently, the GIC’s structure does not allow it to provide enough fresh produce to support all food–insecure students.
For the GIC and the Penn Park Farm, scalability is limited by factors such as storage space, production level, and land availability. Sophie explains, “If there are 80 students signing up for this bag, and we only have 25, then it doesn't even really solve whatever that gap is for those 25 students. It gets them a couple vegetables for the week.”
Domenic Vitiello, associate professor of City and Regional Planning in the School of Design and Urban Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, highlights how programs such as Greenfield Greens, although they provide a short term treatment, do not adequately address the systemic factors that contribute to food insecurity in either scale of efficacy at Penn.
“While Penn does very well in our financial aid system in so many ways, there's still a significant group of our students who aren't well enough supported. I'm not talking about tuition. I'm talking about in their lives, including food, but other expenses, too,” says Vitiello. Although the University boasts a $20.5 billion endowment, as of last summer, students agree that greater investment in efforts to combat food insecurity on campus and inform those in need about the resources that are made available by Penn are necessary.
In Vitiello’s mind, the most effective way to combat food insecurity on campus is cash support. “I don't mean giving people dollars, but EBT cards, a card that can allow people to buy things like toothpaste, toilet paper, and other necessities that aren't just food because oftentimes we talk about food poverty in a way that's just focused on food,” says Vitiello. Food support is necessary, but does not entirely solve systemic financial problems.
Vitiello explains that financial aid and health insurance often do not cover additional costs like groceries and household essentials. As a result, students experiencing food insecurity are often forced to choose between feeding themselves or paying for medical expenses. Food poverty also encompasses the inability to purchase foods which are both healthy and adequate in amount.
Megan Zhong (C ‘23), a FGLI student who interns at the Penn Park Farm, reiterates Vitiello’s proposal from a student perspective: “There's a huge problem with getting FGLI students to have access to food in general because a lot of the burden of access is placed on [the Penn Park Farm]. We have to provide the students with fresh produce, even though Penn could directly give out refunds or provide food vouchers for students,” she says.
Considering food security programs on a larger scale as well, Vitiello explains that current practices create an industrial network of organizations that fight against hunger. “[These organizations] are feeding institutions that are a) very fragmented, b) oftentimes need to continually seek resources to survive, and c) inefficient and inadequate in themselves and often just don't reach the range of people that they need to,” says Vitiello.
Despite their individual critiques for the systems which perpetuate food insecurity on and off campus, Vitiello and Kassabaum both recognize the positive impact of the Penn Park Farm and the GIC on the Penn community. Vitiello asserts the importance of maintaining realistic expectations of the capacity of community gardens and urban farms to address food insecurity, yet praises the Penn Park Farm’s educational opportunities. “[The Penn Park Farm] can really enliven and make substantial contributions to our teaching and learning. It’s also engaging and can have really huge mental health impacts,” says Vitiello.
Food insecurity is a complex and daunting issue, yet the Penn Park Farm continues to welcome and educate students, hoping to impact a future generation of thinkers and activists. “What I really hope to do is to become an expert on food insecurity in Philadelphia … I'm hoping to come out and make some sort of initiative in order to address this issue more broadly and to bring it to the forefront,” Justin says. He believes his experience at the Penn Park Farm demonstrates the impact of the initiative.
“I don't believe that anyone should be stressing about where their next meal is going to come from, and especially on a college campus, where you should be focused on your schoolwork and your experiences, and your friends,” Bhide says. Despite their best efforts, the Penn Park Farm cannot singlehandedly solve food insecurity on campus, but they can profoundly impact students' well–being beyond the scope of academic life.