The Penn Food and Wellness Collaborative: A Q+A with Lila Bhide

two people at farm workday
March 4, 2021

Learn more about the Penn Food and Wellness Collaborative, home to the Penn Park Farm, from our Q&A with Lila Surya Bhide, the program's coordinator.

Q: What is the Penn Food and Wellness Collaborative?

A: The Penn Food and Wellness Collaborative (PFWC) is a new program that brings together a diverse group of campus stakeholders including the Center for Public Health Initiatives, Wellness at Penn, and Facilities and Real Estate Services. The heart of the initiative is Penn Park Farm, Penn's first on campus farm where we grow produce for various hunger relief efforts and deliver year round programming. Our programs focus on health and wellness, food/social justice, sustainability, and food insecurity. The PFWC was one of 3 winners of the inaugural 2019 Your Big Idea Wellness Challenge, chosen out of 440 applicants. You can learn more by checking out our social media platforms on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


Photo credit: Eric Sucar, University Communications

Q: What kinds of crops are planted at the Penn Park Farm?

A: We select our crops based on a number of factors including:

  • Availability: We partner with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and participate in their City Harvest Program that provides us with seeds, seedlings, technical assistance and more. Each season we receive a list of seedlings and seeds that will be available for the spring, summer, and fall and make selections from this list.
  • Productivity: How much will a plant produce per square foot? Since we are a small space with big production goals we prioritize vegetables that produce the most food per square foot of growing space.
  • Demand: we want to make sure that our vegetables get eaten so we try and grow a lot of staple foods. On the flip side we do experiment with new varieties people might not have tried before or heirloom varieties that we hope to help preserve.
  • Quality: We strive to source organic, high quality seeds.
  • Cover crops: We utilize cover crops to help improve the soil health, maintain soil structure and prevent erosion during the off season, reduce weed pressure, and increase organic matter in the soil. Cover crops are an essential tool for farmers and especially for an organic, low till farm like Penn Park Farm. They also help sequester carbon, thus reducing Penn’s carbon footprint! Until 2008, the site of Penn Park was a USPS parking lot. We are using methods like cover cropping to help us build up the soil health, a key component to successful farming. This year we planted red clover, oats, peas, hairy vetch, and rye. Integrating cover crops into your crop rotation requires careful planning but it is well worth it for any grower to learn this practice. 

Here's a full past plant list, as well as estimated crop plans for 2021:

  • End of Summer/Fall 2020: kale, collard greens, mustard greens, scallions, beets, radishes (daikon and easter egg), lettuce mix, lettuce heads, bok choy, cabbage, cilantro, carrots, broccoli, sugar snap peas, turnips
  • Winter 2020 (hoop house): spinach, kale, collard greens, arugula 
  • Spring 2021: kale, collard greens, radishes, arugula, lettuce heads, lettuce mix, spinach, bok choy, parsley, cilantro, sugar snap peas, scallions, turnips
  • Summer 2021: beets, carrots, eggplants, tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, cucumbers, basil, cut flowers, okra, head lettuce
  • Fall 2021: kale, collard greens, radishes, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cilantro, cabbage, carrots, beets, head lettuce, lettuce mix, bok choy, spinach, arugula


                   Photo credit: Eric Sucar, University Communications

Q: How much food has been grown at the Farm, and where has it gone?

We have grown over 600 pounds of produce! This is with a very shortened growing season (August — December) due to COVID-19, so we are excited to see how much we can grow this year when we will have the whole season’s production.

Where the produce has gone:

  • August — September: We partnered with the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP) to coordinate distribution. POP has been a long time partner of Penn, going back to 2014 when Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES) partnered with POP to launch the Penn Park Orchard. POP would pick up our produce on a weekly basis, aggregate it with donations from their various sites, and distribute it to various hunger relief programs in West Philadelphia. Their main distribution partners are Food Not Bombs (West Philadelphia chapter) and West Philly Bunny Hop (a new mutual aid effort that was established during the pandemic).
  • September — Present: The produce from the pantry is distributed to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP)’s Food Pantry. The food pantry was established in May of 2020, as a food relief program for HUP employees now suffering from food insecurity due to COVID. The pantry was modeled after the “Pennsy Pantry'' which provides HUP employees in need, with a food bag that feeds a family of at least four, for a day. The pantry is open every Wednesday from 7 AM to 4 PM and it’s located in HUP on Founders 3rd floor, right above the cafeteria. Items in the bags include non-perishable items such as cereal, pasta, soup, canned foods, diapers, etc. Currently, the pantry is funded by donations from HUP employees and departments at Penn. As of December 2020, the pantry has given over 3,300 bags.
    • This partnership was established by Stacy Pundock for her capstone with support from Jennifer Pinto-Martin, Lila Surya Bhide, Sofia Carreno, Jessie Reich, and others. Stacy came to the PFWC to complete her fieldwork hours and capstone project for her Master in Public Health and is responsible for coordinating the partnership with HUP. 
    • Since partnering with the HUP Food Pantry in October, we have given out over 330 bags of produce. To date, the PFWC is the only source of fresh produce in the food pantry.  We have gotten great feedback on the addition of fresh produce:
      • Capstone survey responses: 96% of participants reported that the produce made their meals healthier, and 92% referred a friend to the pantry because of the addition of produce
      • Open-ended feedback: 
        • “I love the healthy items!”
        • “Very good, I mixed kale with collard greens and turkey butts, what a treat!”
        • “Thanks for continuing to provide for the staff and our families. It is certainly a blessing”
        • “It changed my eating habits to a healthier lifestyle, I love it! Thanks, very helpful!”
        • “This program is great, it really helps!”
    • Some of the produce has been distributed to First-Generation Low-Income (FGLI) students at Penn via an informal group chat. In the future, the PFWC hopes to formalize this partnership.

Q: What are some of the events that the Penn Food and Wellness Collaborative has put on over this past year?

Workshops and Panels: Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19 we have been able to meaningfully engage students through virtual workshops, including many successful collaborations: 

  • SNAP Registration Workshop - collaboration with the student group 7|8, a group of FGLI Asian American students
  • Re-growing vegetables from scraps - virtual skill-building workshop
  • Food for Thought: Navigating Asian American Food Culture - another collaboration with students from the 7|8 club
  • Harnwell House: All Things Food - collaboration with the EcoHouse floor of Harnwell College House
  • Food Justice in Philadelphia - collaboration with Penn Sustainability and the Office of Social Equity and Community, part of Penn’s 2021 MLK, Jr. Day Programming
  • Activist Hour: Food Justice - collaboration with the Student Sustainability Association at Penn (SSAP) and Penn Sustainability as a part of 2020 Climate Week programming
  • How-To Workshops: Reading Nutrition Labels, Painting with Veggies, Pickling with Reused Jars
  • NSO Preceptorial: Food Justice and Urban Farming
  • Presentation to the Student Advisory Group for the Environment (SAGE)

Looking ahead, there are a ton of events scheduled for the Spring 2021 semester, including a storytelling and food workshop with the Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH) and Natives at Penn, virtual cooking classes and a joint cookbook with the Penn Women's Center, and much more! 


Photo credit: Eric Sucar, University Communications

Q: What are some of the plans for the Farm moving forward?

A: We want to establish a student club so that more students can meaningfully engage with our programs. We have been blown away by the interest in our student jobs and fellowship and feel that this reflects enthusiasm from students to get involved with the PFWC in a more long-term way (and not just one-off events or volunteering). We hope to get a student club going by Fall 2021.

This year, we launched the Penn Urban Farm Fellowship along with the student-run Penn Sustainability Consulting Club. We were overwhelmed by the number of applications we received for the fellowship and hope to expand this program next year. 

I would like to expand the farm and add some new amenities like a composting station, fire pit, seating area, cobb oven, and more. We will be adding a composting station, an outdoor walk-in refrigerator, and 4 additional in-ground beds for the 2021 season, and I hope this trend continues!  Long term I would love to add a second hoop house, some kind of outdoor classroom, and maybe even an outdoor kitchen for culinary education. 

I also hope to deepen our academic partnerships and perhaps have classes that are formally affiliated with the PFWC. This year, we have worked with a number of professors and have done guest lectures, tours, presentations, etc. So far, these partnerships have been very successful and in the future it would be great to have more courses where hands-on learning at the farm is fully integrated into the class. We see our farm as a living laboratory and we want more students to be able to take advantage of this resource during their time at Penn. 

Finally, we hope to expand our role as a resource for students experiencing food insecurity. We had originally intended to partner with a few of the amazing campus initiatives that provide free or low-cost food for FGLI students; however, many of these programs were closed due to the pandemic. As previously mentioned, as a stopgap measure, we have been doing informal produce distributions via announcements in the FGLI group chat when we are at the farm; however we would like to formalize this partnership in the future.

How can Penn students, staff, and faculty get involved with the farm?

For Everyone:

  • Volunteer: We do not have volunteer sign-ups available yet, but keep an eye out on our social media pages for that link come spring. Volunteer numbers will be limited in order to ensure appropriate social distancing, and volunteers will be expected to wear a face mask while on the farm. We also typically co-host monthly volunteer days at the neighboring Penn Park Orchard with our POP partners. These volunteer days are currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we hope to open them back up as soon as we can safely do so.

  • Attend an event:  Events will be posted on our social media pages, so keep an eye on our Facebook and Instagram for more information.


               Photo credit: Eric Sucar, University Communications

For Students — everything listed above for Everyone, plus:

  • Work with us: we hire a small number of students eligible for work study each year.  Highly aided students can also utilize summer funding with us. Jobs will be posted on student job boards and publicized on our social media. 
  • Study with us: we have had students conduct research and projects for coursework and independent studies with the PFWC. We also may be able to support a small number of students in need of field work hours or capstone projects for relevant degree programs.
  • Co-sponsor an event: we have collaborated with student groups to put on great events! If your group is looking to hold an event that is related to what we do, get in touch with us!
  • Book our space: given the constraints of COVID-19, we are proud to offer the Penn Park Farm as a space for student groups to safely gather. All attendees are expected to show a green Penn Open Pass, wear a face mask, and maintain social distancing. Approval from the Office of Student Affairs is also required for groups larger than 5 people. We count on group leaders to maintain these norms and appreciate your support!

For Staff — everything listed above for Everyone, plus:

  • Co-sponsor an event with us: We love joint programming and have worked with VPUL programs, college houses, cultural centers, and beyond! So far these have included collaborative workshops, tours, a cookbook project, panels, food and/or wellness centered program series, and outdoor classes. We are also open to new possibilities!
  • Reserve the space: if your office is looking for an outdoor location to host a small, COVID-safe, outdoor event, you can hold it at the Penn Park Farm. Please see the above section for COVID-19 guidance.
  • Book a tour: We offer tours of the Penn Park Farm! Please reach out to us if you would like to schedule a tour.  

For Faculty — everything listed above for Everyone, plus: 

  • Incorporate the Penn Food and Wellness Collaborative into your course: We have worked with professors across departments looking to integrate the PFWC into their relevant course. We have done virtual presentations and discussions and have plans for in-person tours at the farm this spring. We hope that the Penn Park Farm can serve as a living laboratory for hands-on learning.  

Click on the photo below to download an infographic about the Penn Food and Wellness Collaborative!