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Philly seniors, teens farm together in urban Fishtown

Lutheran Settlement House operates a garden that matches youth and experience, all in the name of fresh produce.

A lush vegetable garden grows at 1340 Frankford Ave. in Fishtown, part of an experiment that has young people and older ones get down in the dirt together, digging weeds, plucking beans, and picking lettuce.

It's a senior-teenager endeavor that matches youth and experience — all in the name of fresh produce.

Lutheran Settlement House has owned the parcel across from its offices since 1999, initially as a green space. Then, sometime between 2007 and 2010, some people who lived near the parcel started a friends group and turned it into a dog park.

After several years, its owner decided to use the space for the benefit of the Senior Center at Lutheran Settlement House. The nonprofit received a $50,000 grant from Walmart in 2013 to establish a garden of about 6,000 square feet. In May of that year, LSH hired Jesse Bilger as gardener and farmer on staff to maintain the land as a donation garden through a mutual agreement with the Federation of Neighborhood Centers.

"We ran the farm jointly in 2013 and 2014, and then for the 2015 season we had three teenaged interns who did equal parts work with the garden and the Senior Center and its members," Bilger recalled.

At the end of the 2015 season, an area that had been a gravel parking lot for the owners of adjacent residential properties came under scrutiny by the city Department of Licenses and Inspections, which informed Lutheran Settlement House that it wasn't zoned for parking. The gravel area was filled with soil and became "our primary growing area," Bilger said.

It features the kind of elongated, raised beds that rural organic farmers have long used, but that few city dwellers had seen. To design the new space, Nic Esposito, farmer at Emerald Street Community Farm and a former employee of both the city's Department of Parks and Recreation and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Green Machine project, was hired. PHS also supplied seeds and seedlings in exchange for 10 hours of volunteer service.

"Just this past season, we brought on seven interns for the same program we implemented in 2015," Bilger said. "The kids realize now that food can be grown locally, instead of coming from far away."

Teens and seniors seem to work naturally together in the garden, and they also socialize at Lutheran Settlement House, said executive director Christine Stutman.

"They come into the main hall here and call Bingo, do tai chi, and share community meals," she said. "Sometimes, the seniors teach the kids how to cook the vegetables and use the herbs. The teens also share technology, and teach the senior clients about how to use their phones and iPads."

Stutman said she has additional goals for the outdoor space: "I'd like to try to bring a farmers' market one night a week or on the weekend with Food Trust. And we currently take some of our garden food to a homeless shelter."

"We also want to create stipends for the teens who come here in the summer, something like 20 hours a week at minimum wage," Stutman said. "The kids need the cash, and they like the older folks and learning to garden together."

Technically, the Lutheran Settlement House green space isn't a community garden. "We're a donation garden," Stutman said. "Ninety-five percent of our seniors who come to LHS live below 200 percent of the poverty level, so they take home a lot of tomatoes."

The garden grows 800 to 1,000 pounds of produce a year. Lutheran Settlement House serves 50 to 60 seniors a day, and many use the food cupboard regularly.

"It's a lifeline for them, and we always need food donations," Stutman said. From January to May, LSH recorded 220 visits a month to its food pantry. Last year, it gave out 80,000 pounds of food.

This year, the garden's crops include string beans, peppers, kale, apples, blueberries, strawberries, mulberries, collard greens, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, radishes, turnips, lovage ("a trendy herb," Bilger said), rosemary, and lavender.

LSH would like more land to expand its gardening efforts, particularly because St. Anne's Senior Center in nearby Port Richmond no longer hosts activities for seniors, and LSH anticipates taking on more of those clients.

"The city is giving away land in Kensington, and we'd like to grow our garden in that way," Stutman said. "We all have to eat. And we'd like to know how to grow the food we're eating.

"It makes us feel safer, it feels better, and touching the soil actually raises your endorphins. It makes us happy to touch dirt!" she said with a laugh.