Cultivating healthy eating habits at North Philly vegetable garden

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 Tahtanique Smith holds up an almost-ripe Cherokee purple tomato grown on the farm. (Nathaniel Hamilton/For Newsworks)

Tahtanique Smith holds up an almost-ripe Cherokee purple tomato grown on the farm. (Nathaniel Hamilton/For Newsworks)

From a quarter-acre plot in North Philadelphia, Lisa Gaidanowicz wants to inspire an organic shift toward healthier eating.

Earlier this year, she launched Urbanstead, an organization that teaches students about the benefits of growing and consuming fresh produce by getting their hands dirty and having them literally taste the fruits of their labor.

The hope is that the lessons learned will not only nudge them toward eating fewer corner-store favorites, but also prompt the students to share that knowledge with other kids.

“When you get older, you’ve already built those habits. If we can start these healthy habits at a young age, we’re going to build that and reflect,” said Gaidanowicz.

On a recent Tuesday morning, a small group of students from the YesPhilly School huddled around Gaidanowicz as she led them through the small, jam-packed space off Ridge Avenue.

They giggled and smiled as she picked peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes for them to try.

Most of the students have never seen produce this fresh, let alone eaten it.

“This is the thing about growing your own food,” said Gaidanowicz mid-tour. “Sometimes, it’s not going to look perfect, but the stuff you’re getting in the grocery store has actually been injected with chemicals to make it look perfect.”

Some of the students winced.

Fresh produce as disease deterrent

As they cooled off at a pair of picnic tables, the lesson took a more medical turn.

“One of the biggest things that faces, especially the African-American community, is diabetes,” said Gaidanowicz before asking how many of the students know someone with the disease.

A few hands went up.

“Most Type 2 diabetes, which is the most common, is food-related. It’s actually something that happens because of eating unhealthy food,” she said.

For YesPhilly student Shawnese Smith, that message really hit home.

“I had to grow up and watch my mom have diabetes and deal with the circumstances that diabetes has held for her – in and out of the hospital and doctor’s appointments. She really suffered,” said Smith. “The fact that she spoke on that specifically, that is amazing to me. I like people that want to make change.”

Classmate Rashawn Taylor also said the short farm visit opened his eyes.

“It’s stuff that we’ve never seen before, so it’s really exciting and it makes you want to keep on coming back. It really does,” said Taylor.

Hoping for Urbanstead expansion

For now, Urbanstead is just in Francisville.

The effort sprouted in partnership with the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation, which helps cover some of the farm’s expenses.

The rest, Gaidanowicz covers out of pocket.

Down the line, she hopes to make Urbanstead a nonprofit to oversee a network of urban farms maintained by residents who work together to make healthier living take root.

Positive, motivating experiences too.

“When you’re growing something, when you plant a seed, and you watch that seed grow into a plant and then that plant becomes a fruit, a vegetable and you’ve harvested that, you’ve basically taken responsibility for every level of that plant’s growth and you’re reaping the reward from it, Gaidanowicz said. “I think there’s a sense of pride in that and that’s what I want the kids to have.”

“I see this becoming a huge thing.”

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