Cultivating Community" is a new collaborative initiative focused on historic victory gardening and food security in the City of Reading and Berks County. Organized by Reading City Councilwoman Sihelnik, the "Cultivating Community" Victory Garden Task Force is a partnership of local organizations, businesses, and the City of Reading, working to cultivate the community food system during the COVID-19 outbreak.

On Friday, April 17, 2020, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture issued state-wide guidance for community gardens to continue amid COVID-19, highlighting the importance of gardening for local food security during the pandemic. Working swiftly in response to Secretary Redding's call to action, the task force came together to address concerns about community food security in the city of Reading and the greater Berks community.

Working together on the task force are Jamal Abodalo, Maria Kantner, and Michelle Smith from the City of Reading, Nadine Racht from DS Smith, Alex Roche and Lauren Rosse from the Food Trust of Philadelphia, Alexis Campbell from the Berks History Center, Cathy Curran-Myers from Reading's Environmental Advisory Council, Michael Griffith from Berks Nature, Dean Druckenmiller from the Berks Conservation District, Natalie Marioni from Penn State Cooperative Extension and the Berks County Master Gardeners (Facebook). The task force was spearheaded by District 1 Reading City Councilor Lucine Sihelnik. The "Cultivating Community" Victory Garden Task Force collectively seeks to empower people to grow their own food by providing education and resources for home & community gardening in the City of Reading. Each partner brings unique assets to the team and several organizations have launched complementary initiatives.

 

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The launch resulted in Victory Gardens throughout the City of Reading and Berks County and is intended to grow. Victory Gardens will be sprouting up in eight Berks Nature City Urban Gardens, the Berks History Center, and the Albright College Community Garden.

 

Additionally the group aims to promote community health and to increase environmental sustainability in Berks County. The task force hopes to create a model that can be replicated within other communities in Berks while engaging and supporting local businesses during the COVID-19 crisis. Further collaborations are expected to grow, as the task force partners encourage all citizens, community organizations, and businesses to get behind the revitalization of food gardening.

Soil, compost, and starter plants were purchased to help stimulate local nurseries and farms with the help of the Food Trust of Philadelphia. Additional soil was donated by Giorgio Mushrooms. Penn State Master Gardeners assembled and prepared the containers, which were custom designed and donated to the project by Reading cardboard manufacturer, DS Smith. The Victory Garden containers were delivered with growing instructions and historical victory garden information in English and Spanish provided by the Berks History Center. Additional resources are available digitally such as online Victory Garden webinars hosted by the Penn State Berks Extension. All participants will be encouraged to connect with other local victory gardeners to share ideas and resources by joining the Berks Victory Gardeners Facebook group, as well as follow the Taskforce campaign through the project's Instagram.

As a long-time sustainable agriculture activist and founder of Gayatri Wellness (FB), the former president of Berks Agricultural Resource Network (BARN), and the former Manager of the Penn Street Market and Food Systems Director, Reading City Councilor Lucine Sihelnik knows the significance and challenges behind community food security in Reading.

 

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"Although we have come together in response to concerns around food access in our community during this time of crisis," says Sihelnik, "we must keep in mind our long term goals for food security in the City of Reading. As we work to empower our community to feed themselves during COVID-19, we will continue to develop new ways to connect with one another after the physical distancing is over. We hope that families will embrace one another again, sharing what they have grown, cooked and canned. We hope that by growing food at home we will remember that, as Mayor Moran says, "we are each other's neighbors."

 

The "Cultivating Community" task force also collaborated with Berks Community Health Center, Helping Harvest, Reading Housing Authority and the 18th Wonder Improvement Association's Neighborhood Alliance to distribute garden kits during a food distribution event to better serve the community.

On the morning of May 27th as Helping Harvest distributed fresh, frozen, and canned food to the people of Oakbrook through their Mobile Market, the Berks Victory Gardens Initiative gave away 106 gardening containers to families with children. Both distributions occurred at the 1040 Liggett Avenue offices of Berks Community Health Center (BCHC). Doctor Karen Wang, Director of Pediatric Services at the Oakbrook BCHC says on the project "It is wonderful to see Berks Victory Gardens help families grow healthy foods right in their own gardens! Kids are more likely to try fruits and vegetables when they are involved in growing and cooking them."

The May 27th distribution was the continuation of the effort, which began on May 11, 2020 in the 400 block of Penn St. when the task force distributed 75 garden boxes.

The 18th Wonder Improvement Association's Neighborhood Alliance supplemented those boxes with bags to help the kids take interest and ownership in growing their own food. The bags were filled with goodies from various entities including Aetna Better Health, Penn Street Market, Census 2020- Berks Complete Count Committee (FB), the Philadelphia Regional Census Center, and United Way of Berks County (Live United Grant from the United Way of Berks County, Philadelphia Regional Census Center). Tanya Melendez, Member of 18th Wonder Improvement Association, also adds "It was a pleasure participating in this initiative. I hope we are able to engage the community in activities such as this In the future. The vision and uncompromising commitment of this amazing group of people create a sense of unity and hope for the future."

Thursday, June 4th, in conjunction with opening day of the Penn Street Market another garden box distribution occurred. This is Phase III of the Victory Garden Project and resulted in a total distribution reaching 250 gardens.

"COVID 19 has demonstrated how broken our food systems are. The collaborative effort we see here today for food security demonstrates how we can create change on a local level that educates, empowers, and enriches our community" states Sihelnik.

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For additional information please click on our partner's links below.

The Food Trust - www.thefoodtrust.org
Berks History Center - www.berkshistory.org
Berks County Conservation District - www.berkscd.com
Berks Nature - www.berksnature.org
D S Smith - www.dssmith.com
Penn State Extension - www.extension.psu.edu
Berks Community Health Center - www.berkschc.net
Helping Harvest - www.helpingharvest.org
Reading Housing Authority - www.readingha.org
18th WONDER Residents Association - www.residents18thw.wordpress.com