An urban farm in Chester embarks on its second year of feeding public housing residents

Oregano grows at the Ruth Bennett Community Farm in Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Oregano grows at the Ruth Bennett Community Farm in Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Ruth L. Bennett Homes, with 261 family units, is the largest federally subsidized public housing development in Chester. The homes, which require tenants to make less than a certain amount to reside there, already serve a vulnerable population. When the pandemic struck, they faced further financial hardships, and keeping food on the table became a challenge.

Enter the Ruth Bennett Community Farm, which is now embarking on its second growing season as a free food distributor for those in need.

The 2-acre property started off as a community garden on the border of the Bennett Homes more than a decade ago. In 2019, Chester — long considered a food desert — only had one supermarket. The farm has tried to be a source of healthy, affordable food, hosting a farmers market that carries everything from peppers and collards to eggplant and herbs.

Ahmaj Jackson, 14, wheels fresh produce around the Ruth Bennett Community Farm in Chester, Pennsylvania. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

With the support of donors, the farm pivoted to giving away free boxes of food last spring, averaging about 100 boxes of free food every two weeks. Last Thursday, the farm resumed their bi-weekly distribution, which is expected to continue through October 2021.

The main beneficiaries were and continue to be residents of the Ruth L. Bennett Homes. Any food boxes left over go to other Chester families in need. Keeping with the farm’s mission, the food is always healthy and organically grown.

“Even though we’re in a pandemic where people have been to some degree desperate to get food, we haven’t gone off of our main goal of making sure the food is healthy,” said Steven Fischer, Chester Housing Authority Executive Director.

In addition to supporting families left more vulnerable by the pandemic, Fischer said the distribution efforts helped senior citizens make fewer grocery runs at the height of the pandemic. Older adults continue to be prioritized in distribution.

The operation is made possible with funding from the Foundation for Delaware County, The Leo & Peggy Pierce Foundation, and the CARES Act.

The Ruth L. Bennett Homes are not the only place where people have reported food insecurity during the pandemic.

According to Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks, as millions lost work in the U.S., the number of people who lacked enough access to food rose. The organization estimates 45 million people, including 15 million children, faced food insecurity in 2020.

The Ruth Bennett Community Farm in Chester, Pa borders a city housing project. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In Pennsylvania, counties and nonprofits moved quickly to create food distribution centers and help families meet new financial burdens.

Still, even as the commonwealth reopens businesses and forges forward with vaccination, the Chester Housing Authority reports there’s still a need for this kind of support for families at Ruth L. Bennett and beyond.

“Quite frankly, there’s a need for this kind of service on a regular basis in the city of Chester due to the lack of quality supermarkets,” said Fischer. “That need just has become more acute during this time.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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