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With Great Care and Generosity, the Frankford Community Garden Provides Nourishment and Goodwill

 4 min read

In the middle of a food desert in northeast Philadelphia lies an oasis of fresh and nutritious vegetables designed to help nourish an underserved community.

At Jefferson Frankford Hospital, volunteers are sowing the seeds of healthy eating in a 50-foot-by-50-foot patch of land on its grounds, and harvesting a bumper crop of good will with patients and neighbors.

Bags of freshy picked produce and herbs are offered to the community free of charge—along with recipe cards and cooking demonstrations—to provide wholesome food and encourage healthy eating habits.

“The inspiration for our community garden is deep-rooted in our commitment to serve our residents,” says Diane Auwarter, associate chief of nursing officer at Jefferson Frankford Hospital. “We observed that our community is located in a food desert and faced significant challenges in obtaining fresh and healthy foods.”

The beginnings of this organic garden date back to June 2019 when it was a pilot program—an experiment to see if growing food was even feasible in this urban area. The seed money for three planting beds came from a combination of hospital funding and a $5,000 donation from The American Heritage Federal Credit Union.

“When we started the garden, we thought that we were going to get sporadic support,” says Darryl Beard, vice president and hospital administrator for Jefferson Frankford Hospital. “We thought that there would be some high-level green thumb people in the area and some people who had their own garden who wanted to support it. What we received was an overwhelming rush of support from almost every unit and department within the hospital!”

As the fruits and vegetables grew, so did the list of people who wanted to participate. In fact, every department in the hospital takes turns signing up for garden duty two days a week.

When harvesting time comes, the first day of pickings is allocated for the Lutheran Settlement House, a nonprofit organization that serves under-resourced families in the Philadelphia area, which distributes the food to those in need. The second day’s yield goes to the hospital’s Farmer’s Market for patients, visiting family members, and the surrounding community.

The Farmer’s Market was opened last year when the garden produced an abundance of fruits, vegetables, and herbs—about 1,300 pounds, says David M. Decker, who works in plant operations for Jefferson Frankford Hospital.

Decker, an experienced gardener, didn’t want to see food rotting on the vine, so he asked about setting up a stand in the hospital. The market—sometimes in the lobby, sometimes near the cafeteria—is held every Tuesday and Thursday during harvest season.

He says the garden also contributes to relationship building within the community, some of whom volunteer to work in the garden and at the Farmer’s Market. He adds that the endeavor has been particularly beneficial for the children from the nearby Frankford Friends School.

“The school is a big part of the community,” Auwarter explains. So, when its administration reached out to the hospital, they eagerly formed a partnership.

“It is important for children to learn to eat healthy at an early age,” she says, adding that what they learn in the garden and in subsequent cooking classes can be brought home to the rest of the family.

The recent expansion of the garden was the result of a February 2023 visit from Joe Cacchione, MD, CEO of Jefferson. He was so impressed with the project and its mission to support the community’s needs that he vowed to find the funding to enlarge the project. Working with Jefferson’s Office of Institutional Advancement and Frankford Hospital’s finance department, a one-time allocation of $28,000 allowed for an increase from eight beds to 16 beds, as well an additional planting and harvest.

Decker estimates this year’s crop will yield about 2,500 pounds of fruit, vegetables, and herbs.

While the Frankford Community Garden has proven to be a success, Decker says more funding is needed to continue the endeavor, as it is completely reliant on philanthropy.

“We do not collect any money for the purchase of the vegetables, so we need a sustainable avenue to keep funding the garden,” he says, estimating it will cost at least $20,000 per year to maintain the garden and insure future growth.

Currently, the 2,500-square-foot garden is seasonal—from May through very early October—and is dependent upon the weather. However, looking toward the future, Decker would like to explore the possibility of expanding further and perhaps even adding a greenhouse so that crops could be grown throughout the year.

The space is there, he says. All they need is the money.

“We are growing,” Beard says of the garden and the hospital’s cadre of volunteers. “While we know it’s not a huge impact, we also know the community is benefiting from it. We are doing it from the heart.”

“We want the community to know we care about them—not just as far as medical care, but in every other aspect as well,” says Michele Pohar, a patient care coordinator in the Emergency Department and the ED team leader for the garden. “This is our garden of giving.”