South Philly garden cultivates nutrition and community for refugees [photos]

    Hidden between Emily and 8th streets, a lush community garden sits at the heart of the home of more than 92 Bhutanese and Burmese refugee families in South Philadelphia. About one-third of an acre, the garden produces approximately 5,000 pounds of fresh produce annually from 67 different crops indigenous to their homeland.

    Nationalities Service Center saw the need for a community garden, because most of these refugees arrived with high rates of malnutrition. According to Christian Przybylek, the community integration specialist, around 33 percent of the Burmese population were malnourished and 13 percent of the Bhutanese population had severe health conditions.

    In order to address issues of food access and nutrition, NSC decided to start a community garden that allowed refugees to both grow their own crops and have access to a healthy diet.

    “There’s so much that’s lost growing up in a refugee camp,” Przybylek said. “You lose your sense of the land and your cultural values.”

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    Fresh produce from the garden needs to serve around 92 families on the block. It is enough to supplement healthy diets, but not enough for profit.

    The presence of the community garden also changes the neighborhood itself. It has become a community center for residents on the block to hold meetings, weddings, health workshops and other activities.

    “This used to be all abandoned, trash and rubbish-filled lots,” said Przybylek. “Now it’s a beautiful green space in South Philadelphia which is so lacking in the area.”

    While the community garden program will continue to flourish in the neighborhood, NSC is hoping to see the garden transition to community ownership in the next few years. They have started training organizers from the block to take over the responsibility. The goal is for all families to have a sense of ownership so they can manage their own plots.

    “When we first founded, we had a lot of volunteer help,” said Przybylek. “But now that’s not as necessary as the season goes on. It’s pretty much self-sustaining.”

    Przybylek added that, throughout the summer, exciting events are planned for the community garden. A new mural, co-designed by the community, will be put up on the wall of 8th and Emily streets, and an annual block party will revisit the block at the end of June.

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