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MLK Day volunteer event plants seeds to fight food deserts in Harrisburg

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF

While Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a day off work for some, it was a day of service, education and reflection for many across central Pennsylvania. 

From dinners and awards to cleanups and speeches, MLK Day was marked in various ways across the region. 

About 50 people showed up to clear debris from what used to be a football field for the Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg. Some volunteers were working on preparing the bleachers in elevated gardens. The goal was to prepare the space for spring planting and make more room for crops.

The project is managed by Bridge Eco-Village, a nonprofit that describes itself as a “for-purpose” real-estate development company.  The Bridge acquires old properties such as malls, warehouses and schools and repurposes them to community hubs where people can access food, affordable housing and other opportunities.

Garry Gilliam, CEO of The Bridge Eco Village.

With the help of state funding, The Bridge was able to purchase the vacant school building. The project has two main components: One is focused on food security, urban gardening and organizing a farmer’s market; the other is the redevelopment of the school building. The long-term goal is to create self-sustaining mixed-used space that could serve  as a shopping center and affordable housing. 

Last year, the gardens at the Bridge Eco-Village produced more than 5,000 pounds of food that was donated, according to Garry Gilliam, CEO of The Bridge and former NFL player. 

The gardens and a farmer’s market will be available to the public by early summer.

“Me being from the community, my family, having been from here for years, you know, there are certain systemic things that have been put in place that I think hinder a lot of people’s growth, “ Gilliam said. “When we talk about red-lining, or food deserts, gerrymandering, you know, lack of resources here to our school district, right, all those things are, unfortunately connected.”

Volunteer Daniel E. Snowden pushed a wheelbarrow with fallen branches and sticks to a big pile. It was the second event he had attended Monday. 

For Snowden, this was not a day off.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. definitely wouldn’t want that, because what he did in order to bring about change was to get the community involved,” he said. 

Snowden has lived on the same block for 17 years. When he found out there were plans to repurpose the old school building he decided to get involved to help support the project.

Natalie Leitzell, a social studies teacher in Cumberland Count, volunteered for the Bridge last year. She teaches a course that looks at how cities evolved over time, and is concerned cities are dying as suburbs pull tax dollars.

“People have kind of forgotten about the cities, but there’s thousands of people that live here, and they need fresh food, and they need places to play,”  Leitzell said. “And they need livable, affordable housing.”

A group of Cumberland County high schoolers who are part of their school’s UNICEF club also attended the cleanup. 

“I think it’s important to align your actions with your values and your beliefs. All of us love helping people, so that’s why we’re here today,” said Morgan Longenecker, a senior.

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