Not All Philadelphians Embrace the Urban Farm

Mary Seton Corboy is pushing healthy food to the city's poor, but they're not biting.

Mary Seton Corboy isn’t a sociologist. She is or has been a lot of things: seasoned farmhand, chef, urban agriculture pioneer, political science grad student, biodiesel enthusiast. But she is not, she tells me repeatedly, a sociologist: “If you really want to know what’s going on, you can’t sit in a think tank. We’ve been on the ground floor of this stuff a long time. All we see is what’s in front of us, and that’s why it’s so frustrating!”

Greensgrow founder Mary Seton

What’s in front of them—them being Greensgrow, the cool city farm initiative Corboy founded more than 15 years ago on a brownfield in Kensington—is the landscape of cheap, synthetic, heavily subsidized and highly unhealthy food options that blights low-income communities like Kensington all across America. Which is why, back in 2010, when Corboy noticed how few of her neighbors belonged to the Greensgrow CSA farm-share program, she decided to launch the Local Initiative for Food Education. LIFE participants get a low-cost fruit and vegetable share (which can be paid for using a SNAP card, a.k.a. food stamps) and cooking and nutrition classes timed to coincide with share pickup.

So what’s Corboy’s frustration? That thus far, many of her neighbors still prefer Twinkies to turnips and canning tutorials. “We just don’t see engagement from the old Kensington neighbors,” Corboy laments. In LIFE’s initial run, only about half of the 25 available shares were purchased by longtime locals; the rest were bought by a handful of young Americorps volunteers who receive SNAP as part of their pay package. This past year, enrollment was just as low.

Wryly candid, Corboy is clear on the fundamental problem: poor people’s food choices. “We’re going up against the machine—billions of dollars being spent to convince people to eat Pringles.” What she’s still trying to understand is why Greensgrow—despite identifying SNAP beneficiaries, despite ordering 1,800 postcards to reach residents without Internet access—can’t connect with the neighborhood. “We’re not here to preach to people about local food,” she says. “But if you’re going to wait for me to hand it to you on a platter with Cheez Whiz, forget it.”

Ironically, some of LIFE’s challenges might be rooted in Greensgrow’s financial success. “They are one of very few urban farms in the United States that have a really viable business going,” says Penn professor Domenic Vitiello, who studies food systems and urban agriculture. But in order to build not just environmental but financial sustainability, the farm has had to make some canny decisions about its clientele: growing hydroponic lettuces for farm-to-table restaurants, curating CSAs for relatively affluent Philly locavores. Now that Greensgrow is the doyenne of Philly urban ag—and now that engagement in the local community is financially possible—it might be too late. “Many poor people in Kensington are already attached to community organizations, some of which offer food projects already,” says Vitiello.

Still, LIFE goes on. This year, they’re including a kids’ activity for participants who need childcare. “It’ll give us an opportunity to double down, maybe get these kids looking at greens,” Corboy says hopefully. Meanwhile, she remains indomitable: “You gotta kick me in the head a couple of times before I quit.”

This story originally appeared in the August issue of Philadelphia magazine.