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June 26, 2015

Grow your own: How to reconnect with your community through gardening

Environment Wellness
Samantha Carrie Johnson Handout Art/PhillyVoice

Samantha Carrie Johnson is a personal chef, lifestyle educator and hospitality consultant living in Philadelphia.

Our current food system has a direct impact on global issues encompassing health, ethics and community. Frequently I am asked how one can become more civic-minded within food culture to help promote a healthier environment and sustainability.

Following the trail of a seed to its final manifestation as a cooked vegetable on your plate is more complicated than one would think. With the help of globalization, consumers braving an East Coast winter can get their hands on bright red tomatoes grown in sunny Mexico harvested just days prior.

There is a downside. Much of this mass distributed produce lacks in flavor and is laden with harmful pesticides and even grown by way of genetic modifications. Not to mention the amount of fuel used to transport this produce. An answer to this problem has been the “Eat Local” craze encouraging consumers to purchase more from local farmers markets.

When considering sustainable food pathways, quality and community should be at the top of the list. The only true way to ensure that your food is of the highest quality and leaves a smallest carbon footprint on the earth is if you grow it in your own back yard or if you don’t have a backyard -- in your local community garden.

As a way to combat food insecurities, promote healthy lifestyles and strengthen the food system, gardens housed on vacant lots have become the pride of many underserved neighborhoods. 

Growing up I was always attracted to nature. My mother’s father who grew up on a peanut farm in Virginia; he later became a Philadelphia Police Detective but maintained his roots through gardening in the backyard of his Germantown home. He would often call on me to be his apprentice. Inspired, I became a member of my elementary school’s garden club and later attended the largest agricultural high school in the country, Walter Biddle Saul H.S. of Agricultural Sciences, located in Roxborough.

Now many years later, I exercise my green thumb by volunteering my time at urban gardens that work to serve impoverished communities throughout the city.

Community gardens have sprouted across some of the most deprived areas of Philadelphia. As a way to combat food insecurities, promote healthy lifestyles and strengthen the food system, gardens housed on vacant lots have become the pride of many underserved neighborhoods. Through these gardens, residents are feeding their communities and filling the gaps left by poor city planning.

Learning to grow your own food is an empowering and highly rewarding experience. The benefits of volunteering at a community garden in your own neighborhood or one that serves another are immense.


The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) does an amazing job of maintaining the network of community gardens in the city. Whether you would like to start your own garden or find information on volunteering is a great place to begin.

The PHS City Harvest program works as a resource for growers. They offer hands-on teaching workshops with topics about organic pest control, transitioning your garden from summer to fall, extending the growing season and of course getting your garden started.

The Bartram’s Gardens Green Resource Facility in Southwest Philadelphia services over 100 growers with organic seedlings and supplies to begin their gardening experience. Nutrition education is also available to further encourage healthy eating habits as well as the use of unfamiliar yet highly nutritious fruit and vegetables in plant-based recipes.


Environmental: Reduce your carbon footprint on the earth by growing food in your community. You reduce the necessity for a car, bus, train or motorcycle to access a grocery store miles away as well as help air quality by growing plants that are natural filters for the oxygen that we breathe.

Factory farming is the system that allows consumers to purchase meat in grocery stores. It is an extremely toxic process for the earth consuming more water daily than growing organic vegetables in one month.

Ethical: Facts are facts. Eating less meat causes less suffering. A living being feels pain when it dies. Pigs are smarter than dogs and although bacon tastes really great, a living being is dying so that you can eat it. Studies show that slaughterhouse animals experience the same stress and trauma as any human aware of their mortality. It is painful to watch slaughterhouse footage. Most animals are abused and ill before being killed.

Health: Plant-based whole food diets are known for promoting positive health results and even reversing symptoms of some of the most deadly diseases we face in the Western World. Period.

Community: Urban Gardening is beneficial for building familial community ties and encouraging the health and prosperity of its members. Organizations like PHS offer re-entry programs and green jobs to former prisoners rehabilitating into society.