4-H, Norris Square Community Alliance promote food security in Philadelphia

Jack Ouligian August 04, 2020

Lauren Perez, a 4-H program coordinator in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, delivers food and other items to a family. Image: Lauren Perez

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa — 4-H, a nationwide youth-development program administered in Pennsylvania by Penn State Extension, empowers and educates children and young adults across the commonwealth — a mission that naturally attracts generous, caring and dedicated employees.

“Their passion is not just limited to office hours either,” said Deborah Dietrich, an area 4-H extension educator who is responsible for 11 counties, including Philadelphia. “They make an impact in local communities both in and outside of the job.”

These qualities were displayed in early June, when Lauren Perez, a 4-H program coordinator in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, told her colleagues about riots that had taken place in the community recently and the impact that civil unrest had on families.

“My 4-H kids’ access to food had been disrupted on an epic scale,” Perez said. “There was devastation and destruction on Kensington Avenue. People were afraid to leave their homes, and no organizations were going into the neighborhood because looting was going on.”

On June 1, Perez met with a representative from the North Square Community Alliance, with which 4-H has partnered through the Well-Connected Communities program, a collaboration among Penn State Extension, the National 4-H Council and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Well-Connected Communities is designed to support coalition-building in Norris Square to help set a direction for positive change around health challenges in this community.

Perez explained the situation in Philadelphia to her fellow educators. “I showed them pictures and told them a little bit of backstory,” Perez said. “In the course of three days, they had raised money, shopped, prepared food and delivered it to my house by Friday.”

Donations came entirely from staff members, business acquaintances and family. Thanks to her colleagues’ aid, Perez visited 30 of her 4-H families June 5, bringing not only enrichment materials, but also bags of food and “Messages of Hope” — letters written by other 4-H members across the commonwealth.

“We wanted them to know that there were fellow 4-H members out there,” said Dietrich. “Their experience might be different from, say, a kid in Lancaster County, but we wanted them to know that they were a part of something bigger, and that this something bigger cares about them.”

While Perez continued delivering food to families every Friday for a few weeks, 4-H and the Norris Square Community Alliance began to deepen their collaboration. Together, they created a plan to feed all the youth who were going to receive food through the Norris Square Community Alliance’s summer programming, a group that included the 4-H members with whom Perez works.

The funding for the food distribution came from the pool initially set up by the Penn State Extension 4-H educators, and 4-H worked alongside the Norris Square Community Alliance to address issues related to food preparation, social distancing and COVID-19.

“We saw a need, and we realized that it was not efficient to keep delivering 60 lunches in a community every Friday,” said Dietrich. “There were better ways to do it. We don’t just make short-term commitments to communities; we make long-term commitments, and we wanted to make sure that our plan had organization and follow-through.”

In the days after Gov. Tom Wolf designated Philadelphia County as a “green” zone, 4-H helped the Norris Square Community Alliance switch to an on-site food delivery program, feeding youth in a Norris Square Community Alliance building while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

In addition, the organizations offered socially distant, in-person programs focused on mental health and indoor gardening. And while these programs were switched to a virtual format following an order from city government, the Norris Square Community Alliance continues to feed youths on-site with guidance and funding from 4-H.

“We had planned on doing youth development with the Norris Square kids in their summer programs, so we already had a connection with the organization,” said Dietrich. “But this has grown into something more. We’re not just giving out food or money, we’re working with the community to show them how they can organize and meet their own needs, to set an example that the community can follow.”

Although 4-H, in normal times, provides key resources to schools and communities through clubs, projects and leadership activities, this partnership has allowed for moments of growth and understanding in both organizations.

“The most remarkable thing here is that these organizations have collaborated and communicated together so effectively,” Perez said. “Sometimes people with good intentions get frustrated with the people they are helping because they do not understand the community that they are helping, while the community that they are helping does not know what to do with the resources that they have been given.”

But here, she pointed out, the experience has shown each group a unique perspective and has led to “a wonderful moment where people realize that, if you bridge that gap between each other, it can lead to much greater success.”

More information on Penn State Extension’s 4-H programming can be found at https://extension.psu.edu/programs/4-h.