Spotlight: Saul Students Tell City Council to Support Urban Agriculture

On Wednesday, Sept. 21, Philadelphia City Council held a hearing on urban agriculture, with the goal of gathering information to assess the need for supportive legislation. Food Moxie accompanied Saul High School teacher Jess McAtamney and her senior Environmental Science class when they went before Council to testify. Paul Mendoza, Jake Smith and Karyn Hopkins all did excellent jobs presenting their testimony, and it was our privilege to witness these young people stepping into leadership positions in our city. We’re proud to share testimony from Paul and Jake.

Paul Mendoza

Going around Philadelphia and taking the time to visit some neighborhoods will shock many people. Vacant lots where houses used to stand and other buildings that are abandoned are taking up space in almost every neighborhood. That doesn’t sound right, does it? Well, how about having to watch those vacant lots go to waste? How about having to avoid those vacant lots at night due to the events that take place there? How about allowing children to walk past those lots and seeing them waste away as time goes on? What if there was a way to change all of that? 

At the age of 6, I watched my grandmother tend a tiny garden in her backyard; due to the space, only peas grew there. My grandmother was at her happiest when she brought in buckets full of peas to use whenever she wanted. I had no idea why she was so fascinated with the vacant lot next door when she was happy enough with what she had. Yes, another house once stood there, but at the age of 6 I didn’t really see the big deal. Today I realize that my grandmother wanted to put that lot to good use. 

Attending W.B. Saul High School has opened up my eyes to so many different aspects of life that I never even knew were important, urban agriculture being one of them. Imagine walking any neighborhood in Philadelphia and having to constantly cross to the other side of the street because a sketchy vacant lot is active. Imagine a healthy, green, flourishing garden in its place. Imagine walking that neighborhood and seeing a bunch of people tending to a garden in place of what was once there. 

“The children are the future and they are going to grow up and improve this world.” That is something that I have heard since I was a child. If that’s the case, then why are we constantly allowing children to grow up in a world that is waiting for them to do something to fix it? Why are we allowing children to have that pressure when we can fix things today? Instead of having children and teenagers running around in the streets acting as if they’re doing good, we should change all of that and have them do something that’s better. 

Taking kids off of the streets and having them work in a garden that they will be proud of is priceless. Children will have the chance to finally feel safe in their neighborhood, they can get their hands dirty in a positive way and they will begin to have pride for living in a neighborhood in Philadelphia. 

Allowing urban agriculture to be a real thing within the neighborhoods of Philadelphia will benefit so many people who don’t realize they need this yet. Enhancing the image of neighborhoods in the city, eliminating negative threats in neighborhoods, and giving people a reason to feel proud about the positives that will come from their neighborhood is a win for the city of brotherly love.

Jake Smith

Ag in Philly? Really? Well, just ask me about it. Four years ago, I might have had something different to say about it, but now that I am an urban gardener, I am a bit more versed. 

Urban gardening should be a priority in Philadelphia. Greening should be explored because it is a proactive way of using vacant lots, which are often used to throw trash and are used by drug dealers. Growing on these lots would give kids of all ages knowledge of the positive effect of growing their own food. It would give them a sense of pride in their own community. 

I know this would help, because in my neighborhood, kids my age get into fights and use drugs. It would give them something positive to do. Not everyone plays ball or goes to the rec center. One summer, my mom, my neighbor and I set out to build a small garden in an alley next to our home. We had a plan but didn’t have enough hands. I asked friends of mine to help, they asked friends of theirs, and we all helped build a workable garden. At the end of that season, all of our families had fresh produce to eat. This is an example of the positive effect of urban agriculture. 

As a student with ADHD, it really helps me to do hands-on work. Before I came to Saul, I didn’t do very well with paying attention, but now that I’ve found a school that has an agriculture class, I recognize that I am quite suitable and that I thrive in this environment. I do well, am liked by teachers and have a niche that makes me a better kid. I am proud to get my hands dirty, and I went from being a goof-off to a leader. I recycle, I fish and I help grow things I once never heard of.

When you give students, kids, teens and other young people an outlet like gardening, we are happier and more engaged. We can get in trouble, but why bother when we have something positive to do? Greening and gardening is an undeveloped pathway for kids like me to do well and succeed. We are out there — city kids who know a thing or two about gardening. You might have to call us out or spot our Future Farmers of America shirts, but we are here and we are waiting to apply our knowledge. 

Now give us the chance.