NW Philadelphia gets a boost from USDA aid for city farms

Saul High School, Weavers Way among the local beneficiaries

by Pryce Jamison
Posted 7/26/23

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Roxborough’s W.B. Saul High School to announce the investments. Another recipient: Weavers' Way.

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NW Philadelphia gets a boost from USDA aid for city farms

Saul High School, Weavers Way among the local beneficiaries


U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Roxborough’s Walter B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences on Friday to announce new investments that will promote urban agriculture and increase access to fresh food in urban communities across the country, including in Philadelphia.

As a result of this funding, Philadelphia students and other consumers can expect to see increased access to healthier foods from local farms, and the city’s farmers will have more opportunities to sell their produce to grocery outlets. The investments also seek to improve economic conditions for American farmers, about half of whom did not make a profit last year, Vilsack said.

“Through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, we are growing local economies and building resilient communities, whether rural or urban, in every corner across the country,” Vilsack said. “The Biden-Harris administration is committed to supporting urban communities through increased market opportunities for small and mid-sized producers, strengthening the food system nationally and locally, and investing in urban agricultural operations. These steps will allow families and farmers alike to benefit from healthier food produced closer to home.”

As part of this initiative, Philadelphia farmers can also expect to see the future opening of a service center in the city, one of 17 opening throughout the country. These centers, which are designed to help urban farmers apply for federal support, will offer local growers opportunities to meet with Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) employees who can help with their operation.

“We’re sending a message that no matter what you grow, where you grow, no matter how small you might be, there’s a place and an opportunity for you at USDA,” Vilsack said.

Local beneficiaries of the USDA money announced Friday include Pasa Sustainable Agriculture which received $1.5 million to start the Philadelphia center and provide information for those looking to get into urban farming or help for those already running small- or mid-sized farms. 

Weavers Way Food Co-op received $200,000 to help offset costs for its new store on Chelten Avenue in Germantown, part of $30 million in funding for the Local and Regional Healthy Food Financing Partnerships Initiative. Weavers Way currently operates stores in Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and Ambler, and is scheduled to open the 6,000-square-foot Germantown store later this year. 

“Our expansion is really about supporting the local food system,” said the general manager of Weavers Way Co-op, Jon Roesser. “That store is being made possible in part by the $200,000 grant that we got through the USDA.”

Roesser said federal funding helped with early costs for the store, including architecture fees for renovating the building, an old Acme store that most recently had been used by a social services provider. The new stores, he said, will help keep Germantown residents healthy.

“Other than the produce department, so much of what we see on sale on the shelves of [most grocery stores] it’s barely food; it’s highly processed — a lot of people are eating that,” Roesser said. “It’s unhealthy and it’s bad for the food shed, it doesn’t support the local food system which is vital.”

The Norris Square Community Alliance and the Caring People Alliance both received $50,000 Farm to School grants, part of a $10.7 million investment in the Patrick Leahy Farm to School program, which serves as the driving force for getting fresh food into urban educational settings like Philadelphia’s public schools. 

Vilsack said the Farm to School Grants will also provide new markets for local farmers. 

“Farmers now have a new market opportunity, and schools have a new opportunity to have fresh fruits, vegetables or potentially protein that is produced locally,” he said. 

Politicians, community members and Philadelphia Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. underscored the significance of Vilsack making the announcement at Saul, a Philadelphia magnet school and one of three working farms in the district.

“Agriculture is a top industry in Pennsylvania, and so we’re laser focused for preparing all of our young people who are interested in it, who may not be interested just yet,” Watlington said. 

While Philadelphia is not characterized by the large farms that are located throughout more rural parts of the state, Roesser said, it does have plenty of bread bakers, coffee roasters, orchards, cheese makers, and other small producers who can benefit from federal investment. 

“The new dawn for me is how the USDA can support local food systems all across the country,” Roesser said.