Jul 12, 2022 - News

The People's Kitchen fights to save community gardens

A young girl plants at a community garden in Southwest Philadelphia.
Planting at one of The People's Kitchen's community gardens in Southwest Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Kenny Chiu

Abandoned lots across Southwest Philly where chefs and community members are growing produce to feed neighbors are at risk of being put up for auction at a sheriff's sale next month.

Driving the news: The People's Kitchen, which has cleaned up and transformed 30 lots in the city into community gardens, found flyers on the fences outside some of their garden beds several weeks ago notifying them of a sheriff's sale.

  • The organization is now fundraising and working with the city and Councilmember Kendra Brooks to keep the land under community control.

Why it matters: More than 14% of Philadelphians are food insecure, lacking consistent and reliable access to enough meals, according to 2019 data from Feeding America. Advocates believe that rate has risen dramatically during the pandemic.

  • In Southwest Philadelphia, roughly 27% of residents live below the poverty line, per U.S. census data.
  • The People's Kitchen says its gardens are revitalizing Southwest Philly by growing produce for the community and using it to make free meals.
Produce grows at one of the community gardens in Southwest Philly.
Crops grow at one of the lots transformed into a community garden. Photo courtesy of Kenny Chiu

State of play: The People's Kitchen has raised nearly $17,000 from a GoFundMe page set up in mid-June to help the nonprofit buy the land.

  • Several of the lots were up for auction at a July 7 sheriff's sale, but the group worked with Brooks to get some of them scratched off the list at the last minute, volunteer Kenny Chiu told Axios.
  • The rest were postponed to Aug. 5, when more lots the organization uses are up for sale.

Context: The land is held in trust by U.S. Bank and owned by bond insurance company MBIA, which bought roughly 30,000 tax liens from the city of Philadelphia in 1997. The city had bundled together the liens and sold them in an effort to raise money for school funding.

The big picture: The People's Kitchen is among several community groups and city leaders who've been pushing for legislation to protect community gardens across Philadelphia.

  • This past May, Brooks, backed by several other council members, called on the city to buy back the liens and then prioritize selling the land to community groups.

Between the lines: Chiu told Axios the group is particularly concerned now that sheriff's sales are held online, a shift that happened last year and one the organization says makes it easier for developers and people without local ties to bid on the land. The People's Kitchen believes community members should have first access.

  • "Anybody outside Philly, anybody around the world, around the country, can bid on it online," Chiu said.

What they're saying: Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, the law firm representing U.S. Bank, told Axios they've "consistently worked with city leaders to slow, not halt the sale" of the parcels used as community gardens "until it is determined whether a solution can be reached between the City of Philadelphia and MBIA as owner of the liens."

  • The city didn't respond to Axios' request for comment.
A man pushes a wheelbarrow at one of the community gardens in Southwest Philadelphia.
Photo courtesy of Kenny Chiu
Two young boys plant at a community garden in Southwest Philly.
Photo courtesy of Kenny Chiu
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