Above: Philadelphia's Mayor Nutter meets with local gardeners

At block parties around planting and harvest times, entire neighborhoods in south Philly come together to share in produce, cooking and other cultural activities, like music and dancing. Indeed, Growing Home Gardens has even caught the attention of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter who attended a recent block party, lauding gardeners’ contributions to the community.

“Refugees tell us how much the gardens have helped them make healthier decisions about food,” said Christian Przybylek, Community Integration Specialist at the Nationalities Service Center (NSC). “Not to mention, our new neighbors contribute a diversity of plants and foods city-wide – from Swiss chard, kale and collards to mustard greens, chili peppers and basil.”

Currently, Growing Home Gardens comprises nearly 100 people gardening and growing hundreds of varieties of indigenous foods as part of a healthy diet.

“There’s not a lot of land space, here,” said Przybylek. “But as we began to resettle refugees from Burma and Nepal in south Philadelphia neighborhoods, we realized that many of our new neighbors had agricultural roots.”

So, with community participation and input, the NSC partnered with the city’s Parks and Recreation department, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) and other groups, agencies and advocates to identify safe and peaceful spaces for growing nutritious crops. In 2009, NSC staff – along with an army of volunteers and newcomers – launched Growing Home Gardens, transforming abandoned buildings and trash-filled lots into gardens complete with raised beds, irrigation systems and fences.

Every year, the PHS contributes $80K in in-kind support – everything from wood for raised beds, generators, gardening tools and seedlings.

In working with the city and a range of other partners, Juliane Ramic, NSC Social Services Director, cites the importance of positive messaging in overcoming pushback. “We’ve learned to frame and reframe the issues we’re working to address. We focus on the benefits of creating a space where newcomers and their neighbors can come together, get to know one another, and contribute to each other’s lives in positive and mutually-enriching ways.”

NSC is now connected to several farming groups, as well as to health clinics that share data about nutritional deficiencies among newcomer populations.

For more information, visit the Growing Home Gardens blog at http://nscfarming.wordpress.com or http://www.nscphila.org/