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Rebel Gardeners

June 11th, 2011 - By Therese Madden

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A group of 8th grade boys from Philadelphia’s Pepper Middle school learn to grow food, and, in the process, get a lesson in quite a bit more.

Check out the Rebel Gardeners website.


Photos by Matt Campbell

This school field trip starts with a group huddle. “1-2-3 — S-C-R-G,” SCRG. It stands for Southwest Child Rebel Gardeners — that’s the name they’ve given themselves. Sounds like something out of a novel, maybe a little Lord of the Flies? Nah, too orderly. But the class is all boys, 8th graders. They’re walking  towards their destination, the Eastwick Community Garden. It’s close to their school, Pepper Middle School, in Southwest Philly. The planes flying overhead are a constant reminder that the airport is just down the street.
An unlikely location for one of Philadelphia’s largest community gardens. There’s over 7 acres, and people have been farming on this land since the 70’s. Before they break up into smaller groups, the “rebel gardeners” are reminded why they’re here by their teacher Mr. Stein, “let’s interview the farmers, have some fun, show them respect,
any questions?”
Mr. Stein teaches nutrition, he works for the Agaston Urban Nutrition Initiative which is a university-community partnership based at the University of Pennsylvania. In the fall, he and the students built a garden at their school. Now this summer they are visiting this community garden to get some tips on growing food from experienced farmers.

Bruno the gardner with some of the students from Pepper Middle School

And they really do have experience, ”we got about 75 old people that works these gardens and they really enjoy coming out here, working.” Melvin Kennedy is 68-years-old, when he says “they,” he includes himself. Almost everyone who has an allotment here is over 55. In recent years there’s been talk that this land will be part of the airport’s expansion plan and turned into a parking lot. “I think it would be a disaster because you have a lot of retired old people out here and they don’t have anything else to do but sit at home and die. So, it’s better to give them something to do, get good exercise and good vegetables.”

And this is where the “rebel” in the youth gardener’s name comes in. They’re helping to fight to save this land. As 8th grader Dallas Smith explains this is one reason why they video tape their interviews with the farmers, “we are trying to show them what this place can do. This one guy he makes 400 pounds of produce a year and he just gives most of it away.” The rebels are also fighting the old fashioned way, “I’m trying to write a letter to the airport manager or bosses or whoever runs it and I’m going to see if they’ll stop what they are doing and leave this plot alone cause this is a nice place, a nice environment. People can come here and lose all the stress in their mind and just leave here a happy person.”
About 6 boys approach Melvin’s plot of land, they call him Mr. Mel. “Mr. Mel where is your cabbage?” He points to the different rows, “these are red cabbage… these are tomatoes…” The students head over to the red cabbage, one of their assignments is to measure the progress of the farms from week to week. “Last time about 5.3 inches and now it’s 9 inches, so within one week…” They jump around from farmer to farmer, asking questions about their garden.
A favorite of the kids is Mr. Bruno, “he’s sounds like something out of the Godfather.” Hmmm…. he is from Italy. Today he’s in the garden with his friend, also named Bruno… and also from Italy. They switch from English to Italian. This is something about this particular garden, there are people from all over. In addition to Italy there’s Asian immigrants, African American men with Southern farming roots and lifelong Philadelphians. And the food being grown reflects the cultures, a fact not lost on Mr. Stein. He is after all a nutrition teacher, “it’s exposing them to completely new foods that they never tried before and these are healthy foods. Exposure is really important to try something new, there are farmers from all over the world with food the kids have never seen. And even a tomato fresh off the vine taste completely different so making the connection that fresh food can taste good is a fantastic educational experience for them.”

And it seems to be working, 8th grader Dallas Smith asks Mr. Mel another question. “Do you plant rainbow chard?” Mr. Mel replies, “that’s my favorite.”


Check out the Rebel Gardeners interview with farmer Al at the Eastwick Community Garden. You can see more of their interviews and videos on own Youtube channel, mentalfruit.

[youtube width="640" height="390"][/youtube]


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Photo by Flicker user Chiot's Run / CC BY-NC 2.0

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