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School garden in Philadelphia

  • Subject: [cg] School garden in Philadelphia
  • From: "Sharon Gordon" gordonse@one.net
  • Date: Tue, 12 Jul 2005 11:18:06 -0400

Movable feast
In West Philadelphia, a high school nutrition program plans to bring healthy
produce to people who need it.
By Marian Uhlman
Inquirer Staff Writer

Johnathan Russell is the kind of teenager who doesn't just eat his
vegetables. He grows them, markets them, and gets other kids to eat them,

None of this he could have imagined four years ago when he entered
University City High School and started working in the school's half-acre

Now 18, Russell is helping the school's nutrition program move in a new
direction. Literally. He's helped create a new mobile organic store - from
writing the business plan to painting the truck a cheerful green - that will
sell low-cost kale, tomatoes, chard and herbs in several West Philadelphia

"It means no more excuses for people not to eat healthy," says Russell, a
June graduate who plans to attend Temple University.

Russell's awakening to healthy eating is what was envisioned when the Urban
Nutrition Initiative put down roots in West Philadelphia in the early 1990s.
Starting with a partnership between one middle school and the University of
Pennsylvania, the program soon will be in two dozen Philadelphia schools.

It has received kudos from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as a promising
school-based approach to nutrition and has served as a model for projects in
New Mexico and South Africa. The budget has grown from $750 in 1995 to
$750,000 today, said Danny Gerber, co-director of the Urban Nutrition

"It is a way to help solve one of the pressing problems in American
society - poor nutrition and poor health outcomes," says Ira Harkavy,
director for Penn's Center for Community Partnerships, which oversees the
nutrition project.

Health experts cite poor eating habits along with too little exercise as
reasons for the growing number of overweight people in the United States.

"We have to count on local initiatives and local innovations to address the
problem because the federal government is doing so little," says Kelly
Brownell, a Yale University obesity expert.

Gary Foster, a Penn obesity expert, says the initiative distinguishes itself
by "addressing fundamental issues" such as making healthy food more
accessible and affordable.

At University City High, about 200 students belong to a
school-within-the-school that emphasizes food and health issues in course
work. The students run fitness nights, tend the garden, sell produce at
farmers' markets, and teach other kids about nutrition.

Several students even shared their views on the obesity epidemic at a
conference last month at the National Institute of Environmental Health
Sciences in Washington, D.C.

Brandon Taylor, one of the student presenters, says he told a room filled
with public health experts, legislative aides and physicians that "if kids
were brought up with healthy food, they would pick healthy food."

Taylor, 17, became a convert to good food after he started tending the
garden and reflected on what he was eating.

"I didn't change right away, but over time. I eat more green and less red,"
he says, referring to salads and meat.

Taylor became fond of locally grown food because it tastes better and is

"I am not going to lie - every once in a while I eat fast food, but I have
slowed down," says Taylor, one of about 30 high school interns who are paid
year-round in the program.

Eating well makes him feel better, he says, especially during training for
the high school gymnastics season. "I am more energetic than when I eat
something bad before my workouts," says Taylor, a standout school gymnast,
who prefers granola over chicken nuggets or chips.

While Russell, the new grad, says he initially joined the program to make
some money, he says he couldn't help but change his eating habits.

"It has opened my eyes," he says. "You get so used to it."

He doesn't drink soda anymore, opting instead for 100-percent fruit juice
that he lightens up with seltzer water. Instead of junk food, he buys
burritos filled with spinach, sweet potatoes or beans.

He sees the new mobile store - called A Little Taste of Everything - as
making healthy food more affordable and accessible. The students say their
potential customers live near Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia and are
unlikely to spend more than $20 a week on produce.

"The organic products will be carefully chosen so as to maximize customer
satisfaction with prices as well as profits from such items," the students
wrote in their business plan.

The nonprofit business got off the ground with $26,000 in grants that the
students helped round up, says Gerber. While awaiting city licenses, the
students are taking the truck out to advertise the business and get feedback
from potential customers.

The students say the store is not only about health but will also sharpen
their business skills - from buying produce from farmers to keeping track of

"It is a significant evolution from our first school-based produce stand run
by sixth graders," Gerber says.

And it is likely to flourish, he predicts.

"They may need a fleet of vans."

More Information

The Urban Nutrition Initiative is a university-community partnership that
engages students and people of all ages in an active, real-world
problem-solving curriculum that strives to improve community nutrition and
wellness. For more information or volunteer opportunities, call 215-898-1600
or www.urbannutrition.org

Contact staff writer Marian Uhlman at 215-854-2473 or muhlman@phillynews.com

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