Originally published by PA Eats, May 2023. Find the original article here.
It’s well-documented that planting and tending to gardens can make you happy (or, at least, according to the Mayo Clinic, lower stress and boost mood). Growing food is also an important component of leading a more sustainable lifestyle, keeping the distance between where food is grown and eaten to a minimum. When you take these benefits — not just for an individual gardener — but multiplied out across an entire community, even bigger and more positive things start to happen.
Food justice, for one, where groups of people have more self-sufficiency and sovereignty over where their food is coming from. A sense of shared purpose, for two, which can be especially profound for young people trying to figure out their place in a confusing world. The list goes on, including career development and employment opportunities, and access to fresh, healthy food. All of these factors are the motivating forces behind Trellis for Tomorrow, a Phoenixville, PA-based organization that combines organic gardening and youth programming to incredible effect.
Renamed Trellis for Tomorrow in 2018; the organization previously operated as part of Triskeles Foundation, an Exton-based nonprofit that provided philanthropic services and donor-advised funds. Since 2003, various versions of youth programming existed, always working with gardening in some capacities. When current Executive Director Jennifer Anderson took over in January of 2019, she helped to fully transition what was previously the Food for Thought program to a newly piloted model.
“Our youth program had always been about bringing youth from various low-income communities to farms to work and experience the programming on the farm,” she notes. “Then, we piloted a reversal of that, where we built a garden in the community, and then recruited the youth to work in that garden and give the food back to their neighbors.”
That was the origin of the SEED Skills program, perhaps the best-known part of Trellis for Tomorrow’s work. The organization planted and maintained four gardens in low-income communities (Phoenixville, Spring City and two in Pottstown), which operate from March through October. The primary youth program is an 8-week session in the summer, which provides a paid work experience for youth, age 12-18. The teens work in and manage the garden, harvest the produce, and develop an enterprise to give back to the community.
“It’s quite a remarkable experience for a lot of these youth, it gives them skills and new perspectives about growing food,” Anderson says. “They’re also more tied into their own personal diet and physical well-being, through doing physical activity outdoors and through cooking and recipes demos we do.”
There’s also a strong entrepreneurial aspect to SEED Skills, with classroom time built in for the kids to build their vision for the future. The kids are also in charge of distributing and selling the produce they grow each season — which can be upwards of 8,000 pounds total — through farmstands and pay-what-you-can produce subscription boxes.
For teens who fall in love with gardening, there is an extension of the SEED Skills program offered in the spring and fall, called Springboard. This leadership program invites a group of summer participants to continue work in the garden after school and on weekends to help finish out the season, start planting in the spring and help the staff plan for the next summer session.
There’s another, even more intensive workforce preparedness offshoot of SEED Skills, called Grow Careers, that helps provide opportunities for young people ages 16 through 24, who are interested in nonprofit work. Anderson explains: “We match young people with host employers who are all nonprofits or mission-based businesses, and we pay them, we support and coach them and we provide professional development, like resume building and LinkedIn page development.”
Many kids in Grow Careers have been involved with Trellis for Tomorrow throughout their teens and have built relationships with the staff. This can help Anderson and her team make life-changing connections for them as they figure out their post-high-school plans. In one memorable case, Anderson shares, one of the youths in their program was a DACA youth looking for work experience. They were able to secure her an internship at Alianzas de Phoenixville, an advocacy organization that helps immigrants who have recently arrived in the US.
“She ended up being a phenomenal fit, they loved her and she loved them,” Anderson remembers. “Every youth is different, but it’s nice when we have a lot of history with them and can connect them with what they’re passionate about.”
The other main facet of Trellis for Tomorrow is Food for All, a gardening program where organizations, like businesses, community orgs and faith-based institutions, can host and maintain vegetable gardens on their properties.
“It’s open to any organization that has land and an interest in growing food for food insecure individuals and has a group of people willing to steward the garden,” Anderson notes.
As of 2023, there are 27 Food for All gardens across 5 counties in Pennsylvania, ranging from six beds to over 100-beds. The Trellis for Tomorrow team, which is made up of gardening experts and environmental justice advocates, design and install the garden beds, provide all organic seedlings, and help educate and support the volunteers throughout the growing seasons. The host organization handles all the weeding, maintenance, harvesting and delivery of the harvested produce to nearby food banks and pantries. Anderson estimates that these gardens produce between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds of donated produce each year.
Food For All has always been a popular program, but Anderson says that local interest has exploded in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Every week we get a new school or organization asking to do a garden with us! People are craving community, and the garden is a place where people can go and bond,” she says. “Being in the fresh air, growing things, with your hands in the soil, you’re grounded and connected to the earth, and it’s a nice place to have casual conversations with someone you don’t know.”
She surmises that this is an even more profound experience for teenagers, who increasingly live more of their lives and experience so many interactions on two-dimensional screens.
“This is a huge opportunity for youth to experience a more tangible part of life,” she says. “What people are feeling when they come and work with us in any one of these experiences is a sense of community, life and vitality, a potential for personal agency, and a sense of being able to change themselves and the world around them.”
The garden was formed in 2014 in partnership with Trellis for Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that provides services and programs for youth of all ages to support the sustainable upward growth of communities and the planet. After a period of inactivity, Trellis for Tomorrow reached out to Drexel University student organizations and “revamped the effort,” said Madi Rockett, the president of Drexel Urban Growers (DUG), the organization that maintains the community garden at 35th Street and Spring Garden Avenue.
DUG has been active since March 2020 and has harvested over 850 pounds of food since then. Any food not given over the fence to residents is donated to the Powelton Community Fridge, Rockett explained.
The organization aims to strengthen relationships between Drexel students and community residents, educate people on how to garden, and make fresh organic produce more accessible as a way to address hunger and food insecurity.
The garden has been used as an opportunity for community building as well as a conduit to start conversations with residents on what exactly a food desert and food insecurity is, said John Kirby, the executive director of the Dornsife Center.
“We talk about what foods are accessible in the neighborhood and ask, ‘Do you see these foods in your local stores? How far do you go to get these items? Would it be more convenient if these items were available in your neighborhood?’ to start giving shape to what it means to be in a food desert and not have those things accessible to you or even affordable,” Kirby said. “Maybe they can be physically accessed but they can’t be financially accessed.”
Attendees at the Reduce, Reuse, Repot event on Nov. 6 turn recycled containers into planting pots. (Image courtesy of Drexel Urban Growers)
DUG held its first event on Nov. 6 titled Reduce, Reuse, Repot. Aimed to help people start at-home gardens, attendees brought old recyclable containers and the garden provided materials to paint the containers, soil, rocks for drainage, fertilizer, and herb and flower seeds. DUG hopes to scale the initiative to help community members grow vegetables or make windowsill gardens at future events.
DUG also hosted an event on Nov. 13, Painting for Peace, in partnership with Mantua Worldwide Community, an organization that focuses on promoting public health, the arts and environmental sustainability, to kick start DUG’s youth programming.
For DUG, the event was a space for people to get to know one another, while Mantua Worldwide aimed to spark conversation around gun violence through art, Rockett explained.
Rebecca Rose, an artist and Mantua resident, holds up the sign she painted for the Nov. 13 event held by DUG and Mantua Worldwide Community. (Alesia Bani/PN)
“We want to spread the message of peace, we want to become as educated as we can, to become leaders so we can change the fabric of this world,” said Gweny Love, the founder of Mantua Worldwide Community, during the event as attendees painted. “In order to create any change when we talk about social responsibility, the change first comes with being able to envision in our minds a different type of world.”
Carolotta Stafford, 44, came to the event with her 7-year-old nephew to encourage his creativity. She felt the event was needed in the community because of the increase in violence in local communities.
“Some of the young people that I work with have experienced such great loss with cousins, brothers, friends, or other family members at levels that when I was a kid that was unheard of to have so many of my peers or people I may know from the neighborhood die,” said Stafford who volunteers as a reading captain with Read by 4th. “Yes, violence was still around but some of these kids go to school and come back the next day and their friends are gone.”
Carolotta Stafford, bottom left, prepares art materials for her nephew at the Nov. 13 Painting for Peace event. (Alesia Bani/PN)
People in the community have expressed that hands-on activities are needed for young people to give them an “opportunity to see they can do different things,” in addition to securing quality education, access to jobs, adequate housing and food, which affect crime rates, Stafford said.
“One of the tactics has been to create programming for our young people so they have alternatives to being on the streets or hanging out with people who may not be good influences,” Stafford said.
Caleb Pope, 17, a student at CAPA High School who grew up in Mantua, said he enjoyed painting during the event and thinks art-related events are a good way to engage young adults.
“Especially when we’re all doing it in the same environment you kind of see where everybody’s head is,” Pope said.
Caleb Pope, a student at CAPA High School, used three shades of blue in his painting to represent different perspectives of peace. (Alesia Bani/PN)
DUG is planning to start a monthly garden workshop for kids K-12 and have local high schoolers volunteer and serve as co-leaders. The hope is for teenagers to eventually have the ability to run garden programming for children in the Mantua community.
A core mission of DUG is to provide nutrition education to the community.
“We’re figuring out how DUG can advocate for relevant public policy that’s related to food insecurity as well as overall social and economic social justice,” Rockett said.
The group wants to hear what people in Mantua are interested in learning about and “meet them where they are at,” Rockett added. Residents have expressed interest in alternative gardening they can do in their homes such as hydroponics, a form of gardening that uses no soil. DUGs mission is for residents to use what they learn to start their own gardens.
“It’s definitely, by all means, not a solution to food insecurity but it gives people agency to build resilience within their own families and neighborhood through garden education,” Rockett said.
“It’s really nice to see that as a community we can come together and help people grow food on their own without having to rely on outside sources or institutions that they may not trust,” added Aaliyah Greenman, the vice president of Drexel Urban Growers.
One of the goals for the garden is to create a shared leadership model, so it is not only reliant on Drexel students, Kirby said.
“You may have one group of students for four years that are really into an idea and that group can leave,” Kirby added. “So if we really have a shared leadership model we can create a sense of sustainability.”
Ultimately, DUG hopes to use youth education as a way to enact social change.
“They’ll be learning to garden then teaching future generations and their kids how to garden, setting up a system of educating one another,” Rockett said.
Philly summers can be downright oppressive when the temperature and humidity start their annual ascent, but this is the time when our community garden volunteers shine! Year after year they return to the beds to nurture their crops—all in the name of service to the community.
In March of 2020, our crew were sent home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant the vast majority of our volunteers would not be permitted to come to the on-campus garden. The volunteers were heartbroken to scale back operations when the need for nutrition was greater than ever. The Vanguard Community Garden typically contributes thousands of pounds of fresh, organic produce to local food pantries to fight food insecurity. How could we keep the garden running?
Welcome Homegrown Heroes!
A skeleton crew kept the garden going last year, but when we realized the pandemic would continue into 2021 (another growing season), we knew we needed to do more. Since many of our volunteers have their own gardens at home, we decided to ask whether crew would be willing to dedicate a portion of their gardens to raise crops for the cause. We offered to supply plants, seeds, fertilizer, etc. so they could grow vegetables in their own gardens and deliver the harvest to local food pantries in their own neighborhoods. We even encouraged crew without gardens to participate—with a porch or patio that gets some sun, you could also try your hand at farming! And so, “Homegrown Heroes” was born!
The program has been a great success so far. We created an online community for crew to swap stories, successes, failures, questions, and pictures of their gardens. We’re seeing photos of bags of fresh produce delivered to pantries we hadn’t worked with previously. Participants are exchanging information and tips, and it’s exciting to see our crew volunteers embrace this challenge while simultaneously making the program more visible, inclusive, and more productive with even greater harvest totals!
None of this would have been possible without the support of our partners at Trellis for Tomorrow, a non-profit dedicated to fighting local hunger through community garden programs. While our volunteers are working the home-front, our friends at Trellis have planted high-yielding, low-maintenance crops such as potatoes and carrots in our campus garden beds. We are projecting bed yields to rival or even surpass our highest totals this year!
I could not be prouder to be a member of the community garden team. I’m always amazed, but never surprised, at the creativity and dedication Vanguard crew put into the many volunteering opportunities available to us. Our “Homegrown Heroes” are doing more than just giving back to the community, they are spreading the spirit of giving and growing to all Vanguard crew! So, a big “shout-out” to my fellow volunteers! Keep up the good work and keep the good vibes flowing!
For as many pounds of fresh produce that Trellis For Tomorrow grows and donates on a yearly basis throughout Chester County – in 2019, the number totaled more than 30,000 — there seems to be an equal amount of pathways that have led its staff to the organization, in order to help solve what has become a major health crisis.
For Jennifer Anderson, who has been the executive director of Trellis since 2019, her professional career has included financial services, receiving a Master’s degree in public health, non-profit management consulting, and being the founder of an organization that worked with businesses to address how they can strategically function on a more sustainable level.
For Senior Programming Director David Ryle, it was a dovetail of experiences in the ministry, social justice and organic agriculture that led him to begin a job at the Triskeles Foundation (later named Trellis For Tomorrow) as a farm educator for at-risk youth, when he began to introduce young people to the cycle of food production that plants, grows and harvests food, gets its to food agencies around the county, and ultimately onto the tables of those who need it most.
Anderson and Ryle are not alone. They form a contingent of the seven-member Trellis For Tomorrow staff, a board of directors, volunteer participants and young people who find themselves as empowered warriors in the middle of another kind of pandemic – one that has led to the widespread shortage of food to Pennsylvanians from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and in all of the small communities in between.
A June study by the Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Network revealed that as of May, 2020, 1.9 million state residents struggled with food insecurity, with very limited access to food markets where healthy food like fruits and vegetables are in plentiful supply. Consequently, these individuals suffer from a lack of proper nutrition and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.
The rate of food insecurity in American households is on a steady climb, and COVID-19 has only added to the surge. A study done by the Brookings Institute found that food insecurity in the U.S. has “effectively doubled” due to economic disruptions caused by coronavirus.
“The biggest issue is that our food system is not only non sustainable, it’s not equitable, and it’s not addressing our basic needs to feed ourselves as a community, and that goes not only for our surrounding counties, but our nation and our world,” Ryle said. “We need to rethink the way that our food system is built, and we’re doing that with our gardens.
“Addressing how we society care for our land, care for our animals and ourselves through the food that we’re growing and getting to where it needs to be could not be any more urgent. By raising these questions and giving people some on-the ground training, it solves exactly what’s needed now, in order to safeguard the future of our communities.”
Food for All & Youth Seed Enterprise
Begun in 2002, Trellis For Tomorrow primarily focuses the bulk of its energies on two food producing and distribution initiatives:
Its Food for All program is a regional effort that creates organic gardens established for and in partnership with businesses, corporations, housing communities, faith-based groups, and municipal organizations. Currently, Trellis partners with nearly 20 entities throughout Chester, Montgomery and Delaware counties, and since 2012, has planted and cultivated over 300 garden beds and donated over 200,000 pounds of food to 41 agencies in the region.
Its Youth Seed Enterprise establishes organic gardens in food deserts through the ingenuity and hands-on work of teenagers ages 13 through 18, who not only help construct the gardens, but learn valuable skills in organic gardening, operating a small business, creating a platform for youth entrepreneurship, and creatively problem-solving.
The program also enhances their understanding about the cycle of food from cultivation to distribution, and develops a strong link of meaningful community involvement.
In 2020, the number of participants in the Youth Seed Enterprise expanded to 38 young people, and so did the fruits of their labor. In communities throughout the region where food insecurity is at high levels, the students grew and donated 8,622 pounds of organic produce – representing a 246 percent increase from 2019 – that were all grown at the program’s four gardens in Montgomery County.
“It is immensely rewarding to see these kids’ faces light up when a squash seed that they planted two weeks before is now a seedling growing out of the ground, and three weeks later, they’re pruning it back and a week later, they are harvesting that squash,” Ryle said. “They begin to learn that they have the power to grow something, and the power to change their community.
“That is an unbelievable thing to see, and the ramifications of that dynamic continue to spread in the communities we’re getting to.”
The benefit of each program is that once the produce is grown, it makes it way to area food agencies and is sold at very affordable costs to those who desperately need access to nutritional food.
Whether the work of the Trellis For Tomorrow is seen through its Food For All program or in its Youth Seed Enterprise, the organization’s mission is both holistic and integrative. It provides each volunteer with an experiential education that establishes them as a conduit for change; integrates their work as part of a “real-world” solution and provides long-term exposure to the values of sustainability, self-reliance and collaboration.
Getting the right food to the right people is the equivalent to solving a complex equation, Anderson said.
“There are multiple layers to improving our food system. There is the first layer, which is getting people food. The second layer is making sure people have food that is nutritious enough to keep them healthy. The third layer is continuing to address the negative impact of our food system — environmentally and otherwise — on people’s lives.
“In these programs, the solutions come down to creating a model of distribution of growing and getting food to people and also developing a toxin-free, nutrient-focused model,” she added. “We’re addressing all of those issues at once. We are establishing gardens where people live, work and worship, and in the process are bringing in a network of people who are turning these gardens into a community asset.”
Flipping the narrative back
In a world where the growing, cultivation, distribution and availability of food has changed dramatically, Ryle said that the role of organizations like Trellis For Tomorrow is far greater than simply dropping seeds in to the ground – but to essentially return our society’s fundamental food-growing system back to the garden.
“One hundred years ago, everyone ate organic and local, and processed foods and exotic foods were reserved for the privileged,” Ryle said. “A few generations later, that entire narrative has been flipped on its head. The bulk of the food that we’re eating is coming from a great distance, and organic and local food options are now reserved for people who can afford it, and it’s out of reach for the people who desperately need it.
“As a result, people living in areas where they are unfamiliar with growing. We’re now seeing the last generation who grew up with local food. There are intrinsic abuses of the land, our animals and of ourselves that have resulted from a society that no longer asks, ‘Is this good for us?’
“We’re inserting ourselves into this dialogue,” he added. “Maybe one small non-profit in Chester County is not going to change the whole system, but we can work to establish a localized food system that gets young people to begin talking to older people. There is really magic in that. If you can change a small amount of peoples’ understandings about their relationship with food, you can change anything.”
Anderson said that much of the “big picture” crystal ball of Trellis for Tomorrow is currently wrapped up the organization’s strategic three-year plan, which further imagines a growing diagram of partnerships, access, education, inspiration, leadership and networking, all working in conjunction with each other.
Part of that long-term plan includes expanding Trellis For Tomorrow to southern Chester County, which will be realized in the establishment of garden beds in towns like Avondale, West Grove, Kennett Square and Oxford. Anderson and Ryle said that the organization will begin establishing new partnerships beginning in 2021, with a three-year plan to firmly establish Trellis for Tomorrow gardens locally.
“Some of this expansion will hinge on opportunities and potential partnerships, so we will look for communities, businesses, and faith-based groups that have the right amount of interest, the right amount of space and the right amount of youth population,” Ryle said. “When things align, that can better tip the scales to tell us that we need to take a step in those directions.”
“We have a new mission statement that talks about inspiring, resilience and compassion — to inspire individuals to build sustainability in their communities and themselves,” Anderson said. “That’s the foundation we’re building on. With 2021 soon upon us, we are going to use it as a year to define our outcomes and our measures, and doubling our efforts in future years.
“The wonderful thing about a garden is that it can be utilized for food, as well as environmental and economic social and race systems, in terms of food and agriculture. There are so many layers of a garden that benefit our communities and us as individuals. It is the gardens that we have grown where we see those who are in our programs develop not just as volunteers and students, but as agents of change.”
A battered window air-conditioner labors noisily to pump cool air into Bob Steininger’s office, a small room in a brick building that was once a Catholic elementary school in Phoenixville. It’s been a hot, sticky summer so far.
But Bob uses even the weather as a teachable moment. “I tell these kids, ‘If you can handle working outside in 95-degree heat and 100% humidity and stay focused on your project, you can do anything.’”
Bob is the director of Chester County Youth Programs with Trellis for Tomorrow, a nonprofit that creates transformative, real-world opportunities for youth who have faced social and economic disadvantages. Through the lens of sustainability, young people learn to make choices that foster health and well-being for themselves, their communities and the environment.
Since 2009, 4,500 kids have been part of Trellis’ programs—one of which is still in its infancy but is off to a great start. The Youth Environmental Stewardship (YES) program focuses on creating the next generation of land stewards.*
Supported in part by funds raised through Natural Lands’ Campaign for Humans and Nature, a small group of 13- to 17-year-olds work on conservation projects at two of Natural Lands preserves: Binky Lee and Bryn Coed.
Projects in the YES program include planting trees, trail maintenance and construction, invasive species removal, and beautification projects. The program emphasizes conservation and allows participants to explore possible career opportunities in the field.
Connecting people—especially young people—to the outdoors has become an increasingly essential part of Natural Lands’ work. “Studies have shown that spending time outdoors increases a child’s interest in and care for the environment,” says Oliver Bass, president of Natural Lands. “Part of our job is to cultivate the next generation of conservationists. Getting them outside for hands-on experiences has a far greater impact than simply teaching them about the importance of the natural world in a classroom.”
Every weekday morning during the six-week program, Bob drives his van around northern Chester County to pick up a dozen youth from Spring City and Phoenixville, then drives them to meet with Natural Lands Preserve Manager Darin Groff. They work for four hours on whatever tasks Bob and Darin have selected.
While the students benefit from real-world work experience, Natural Lands’ preserves feel the love as well. “Help from the YES kids means my staff can focus on other projects we might not get to otherwise. Our staff is working on a lean budget to manage over 600 acres on these two preserves alone—every bit of help counts,” says Gary Gimbert, regional director of preserve stewardship.
Participants must apply to the program, which offers a carrot of a $7.50-an-hour paycheck. But Bob says the kids also join YES to try something new, to have something to do for the summer, to meet people, or—and this really excites him—to learn more about environmental stewardship.
At face value, the YES program looks like many others that offer kids from underserved communities career training and hands-on work experience. But Bob makes each experience on the preserves a metaphor for the real world.
“At the heart of this program, we want to provide young people with a safe place to make mistakes. We provide tools and skills—accountability, time management, problem solving, punctuality, perseverance—that will translate to job success later on.”
Bob adds, “It changes the trajectory of their lives.”