Farm springs up on North Philly lot to supply restaurant chain

There are untold numbers of urban gardens in Philadelphia: some are trespassing; some are large neighborhood collectives; some major operations–like the Weaver’s Way farm–sell tons of produce to grocery stores and restaurants.

Philadelphia’s newest farm at 27th and Master is underwritten by the restaurant it supplies. Marathon Grill–a local chain with six locations in the city–created a nonprofit arm to transform a post-industrial vacant lot in Brewerytown into dozens of raised beds for radishes and lettuce.

Marathon Grill will buy half of the estimated 10,000 pounds of vegetables the farm will produce annually, while the rest will be sold to neighbors on-site.

Many restaurants in the city source food locally, but few of them have modestly priced menus.

“It’s very hard to source good, real food by people who care about what they’re doing in restaurants that have the price point that we have,” said Marathon Grill president Cary Borish. “We’re trying to forge new relationships to take this food and get it on the table in Center City.”

The city of Philadelphia donated the land on a year-to-year lease. The half-acre lot owned by the city had been the site of a towering heap of trash.

“It was over our heads in garbage bags that had rotted,” said John Philley, a nearby resident. “People were just dumping garbage back there.”

When former Mayor John Street launched his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative in 2001, this area was hit hard. Whole rows of abandoned houses were demolished, leaving blocks with gaping spaces.

Now those vacant lots, and the estimated 40,000 others across the city, have become magnets for trash and crime. The city had been giving small amounts of grant money to neighborhood groups to clean and maintain those lots, but this year those grants have been cut from the city budget.

Urban farmers have been trying to grow food in those “missing teeth” lots on city blocks with limited success. If Marathon Farm works, it could be the farmers’ wedge into city politics.

“Land access is the biggest thing,” said Patrick Dunn, director of Marathon Farm. “It’s so hard to get land to garden. We’re hoping we can work with the city to develop an easier way to navigate the system, and talk to city officials about land access.”

Dunn–who also spends volunteer time with Emerald Street Garden in Kensington–will soon be taking another tack toward relieving urban blight. This spring he will be distributing seed packets bundled with information on “guerilla gardening,” encouraging people to surreptitiously grow vegetables and flowers in vacant lots without permission.

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