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Super Fresh

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The state’s first urban farm is supplying Wilmington with fresh, locally grown produce. Photo by Tom DavisLooking for fresh, fresh produce? With a variety of farm markets—and an actual farm—Wilmington is the place to find it.

Stroll tree-lined Bancroft Parkway on a Saturday, or wander through historic Rodney Square. You’ll find local produce in abundance—and some surprises.

“You can even bring in any bladed tool you own and have it sharpened professionally,” says Jacquie Kimball, master of the Little Italy Neighborhood Association Farmers Market.

But first, a step back…

Christopher Moore believes there had been a need for fresh produce in Wilmington, a city of nearly 75,000 residents with only four supermarkets. So Moore, the healthy lifestyle coordinator for the Christiana Care health system, set about the dual task of merging city dwellers looking to eat healthier with conveniently located sites that provided fresh, home-grown fruits and vegetables.

“Under our Camp Fresh initiative, we conducted a survey of local residents and then made recommendations to city council on ways to improve access to fresh produce in the city,” says Moore.

Camp Fresh currently operates three fresh produce markets in Wilmington. One is on the Wilmington Hospital campus, another at Howard High School and a third in partnership with Delaware Center for Horticulture’s award-winning urban farm at 12th and Brandywine streets. Camp Fresh involves high school youths in the operation to instill healthy eating habits among the city’s young people.

But Camp Fresh is only a part of the city’s expanding access to fresh fruits and vegetables. A tree may grow in Brooklyn, but an actual farm has sprouted in Wilmington.

“We worked with the 11th Street Bridge community after its civic association president had approached us to help them get a community garden started,” says DCH’s community gardens manager Ann Mattingly. “It took three years, but we eventually secured the parcels of lots necessary to begin laying the groundwork for what would become Delaware’s first working urban farm.”

The ½-acre parcel is divided in half: one half a raised-bed community garden tended by 18 local families, the other a working produce farm. Farmer Alice Davis manages the farm along with volunteers and an intern.

“The farm uses raised beds to grow our crops in ideal soil conditions,” Davis says, adding that Wilmington’s history of industrial pollution makes using native soil an iffy and expensive proposition. “Rather than spend money on expensive soil testing and mitigation, we plowed it into building raised beds for growing.”

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Davis estimated that the farm would produce about 1,500 pounds of produce by the end of the growing season. Impressed by the results, the Garden Club of America awarded the DCH its prestigious Founders Fund Award, which required votes from 200 garden clubs and more than 17,000 members around the country. The $25,000 cash prize will help expand the farm to include an irrigation system, decks for visitors to relax, and a hoop house to extend the farm’s growing season into the cool months.

DCH’s urban farm represents another facet in Mayor James Baker’s vision to guide Delaware’s largest city toward helping the state expand local agricultural markets. In 1988 Baker, then president of the city council, was instrumental in moving the foundering open market at Eighth and Orange streets to Rodney Square. Since then the market has flourished, growing to a peak of more than 50 vendors serving as many as 1,500 visitors and shoppers a day.

“In addition to farmers from the tri-state area, we also offer hot food, including Deerhead hot dogs and pastries from Little Italy’s Papa’s Pastry Shop,” says Tucker Casey, Rodney Square’s market manager.

Speaking of Little Italy, the neighborhood got into the fresh vegetable act, initiating its own open market in 2004. “We have only one rule for our vendors,” says Kimball, “and it’s that whatever they sell, they must make themselves.”

Located at Seventh Street and Bancroft Parkway, the market offers diverse products, including flavored popcorn, jewelry, baked goods and lemonade—along with fresh produce, of course.

The market is a testament to continue re-establishing Little Italy as “a vital, tight-knit community that is more than just a restaurant destination,” Kimball says.

Mayor Baker sees Wilmington’s farmer’s markets as an opportunity for residents to not only have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but to increase’ understanding of the health benefits of eating fresh. Baker’s goal is a true vision. But one that may be rolling with its own momentum now.

Kay Keenan, a member of DCH and a Trolley Square resident, is also a frequent shopper at the 12th Street urban farm

“I love buying local,” she says, “and I am by no means a gourmet cook. But what I like about the farm is that they offer exotic vegetables like yellow beets and kohlrabi, but also provide recipes for making dishes using these products.”

Mattingly says the urban farm serves as a demonstration project to “inform visitors how they can accomplish the same success with their little plots back at home. It’s also a model for other organizations in the state to replicate throughout Delaware.”

Keenan says she’s learned more about the seasonality of fruits and vegetables that you don’t learn from a supermarket. What she likes the most about the farm is that “she never knows what she’s going to be able to get until she gets there.”

Which is a lot like what progressive Wilmington offers.

Markets and schedules:

Delaware Center for Horticulture
12th and Brandywine streets, Wilmington
Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., through summer
 

Little Italy Neighborhood Association Farmers Market
Seventh Street and Bancroft Parkway
Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., through September 25
 

Wilmington Farmers Market at Rodney Square
Rodney Square, 10th and Market streets
Thursdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., through Oct. 13

Wilmington Hospital Campus Farmers Market
Wilmington Hospital, 501 W. 14th St.
Noon to 4 p.m. June 21-August 14 

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