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Three Philly Food Access Innovations That Bridge the Gap

A busy day at the Equal Dollars Food Market
A busy day at the Equal Dollars Food Market

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‘Food desert,’ a term applied to many Philly neighborhoods, is a bit of a misnomer. It implies a shower of fresh produce can change an underserved community. Yet, Philly’s food justice programs—Urban Nutrition Initiative, Sunday Suppers, and Mill Creek Farms to name a few—don't just make food availabile, they get people involved.

The citywide Healthy Corner Stores Initiative by the Food Trust has been widely cited, appearing in the Daily News, National Public Radio and the Washington Post. Most of these articles questioned the effectiveness of the increased access, but missed half of what the program does. In addition to restocking shelves at over 600 corner stores, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative provides marketing tools, healthy shopping lists, menu cards and live demos, building new activity around eating.

“We’re changing corner stores from just a store to a health resource for the community and really promote healthy eating,” Brianna Sandoval, Director of Healthy Corner Stores says.

Local food access initiatives are finding ways to address urban nutrition beyond providing produce. They’re using education and community building to link enthusiasts of fresh food with those who’ve never had it.

Equal Dollars Food Market and Urban Farm
Equal Dollars Food Market had been supplying Strawberry Mansion in North Philadelphia with ‘end-of-commercial-life food’ when it started its own farm. The weekly market serves 120 residents, who purchase fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy items using the community currency they earn by volunteering with local member organizations.

“We realized that in order to create a self-sustaining market we needed to also participate in the beginning of the supply chain not just the end,” Sara Reed, Community Outreach Coordinator for Equal Dollars, says. “We also felt the need to grow local food that members of the community could assist in growing and then buy with their Equal Dollars.”

The Equal Dollars Urban Farm launched this past April in North Philadelphia and has 40 raised beds, six for individual member farming, and is operated by 40 to 50 volunteers. Many volunteers come to the farm through the market, which holds potlucks, barbeques and other gatherings. Mothers bring their daughters, volunteers bring new helpers, and local people socialize with the friends they’ve made there, Reed says.

“We started making [shopping at the Food Market] a ritual,” says one North Philadelphia resident. “It was an abundance. We had to start giving some away to our neighbor. I shop for the people at church.”

“We feel so full of the good things we’re gaining,” adds a fellow shopper and neighbor.

Farm to Families Cooking Demos
Every week Joana Fagan, Nutrition Educator at Health Promotion Council, sets up a table at sites across North Philadelphia and displays food boxes and portable kitchen equipment. Then she gets to work cooking Mexican cabbage stir-fry, Brussels sprouts with toasted almonds and pasta, black bean burgers, turkey burgers, pan-fried fresh fish, and swiss chard with chickpeas or whatever can be created from the box that week.

“The whole idea is to expose people to items they’re not familiar with,” Fagan says.  “If you give them some interesting ways to prepare it, they’ll try it. I always engage the audience by asking them how they prepare a dish.”

Food boxes, provided year-round at low cost to 250 low income families through St. Christopher’s Foundation and Health Promotions Council, are stocked with fresh, fruits vegetables, meats and dairy products from Lancaster County farms.  As clients pick up their portions they come by Fagan’s table to watch her live show and try her food.  This gives Fagan a chance to hands out recipe cards in English and Spanish and answers questions about food storage, light cooking, and how to read food labels.

“The real reward is that people come back to me week after week,” Fagan says. “They’ll say, ‘Jo, I tried the recipe,’ or ‘I made the recipe for my family.’ It’s just getting people to look at food in a different way.

“I have converted many adults and kids to try foods they thought they would dislike or were afraid to try. So many people just need a little information and visuals to get them going in the kitchen. Once they see, smell and taste foods that maybe they would never try or foods they are intimidated by, it's all a wonderful learning experience."

Earth’s Keepers and From Plant to Seed
In 2010, Sister Alia Walker and fellow gardener, Safiyah Abbul-Latis, opened Earth's Keepers after a mother asked to bring her children to their award-winning Jannatain Community Garden in Nicetown. The other gardeners, mostly semi-retired women, did not want kids around.

“I understood where the group was coming from,” Walker says. “But I also understood where the parent was coming from; she wanted her children to learn how to grow food.”

Walker, who is a West Philadelphia native, studied business development at Philadelphia University and has grown her own food for 35 years. She’s founded and directed several youth programs in Philadelphia including Family Center at Children’s Services Inc and Wharton’s Young Entrepreneurship Program. While developing Earth’s Keepers, Abbul-Latis and Walker enlisted help from Danny Glover of Urban Nutrition Initiative and even flew out to Milwaukee to learn directly from Will Alan and Growing Power. During the trip they met fellow Philadelphian, Jim Duffy, who provided high-tunnels and gardening tools. They also work with Philadelphia Orchard Project.

Earth’s Keepers brings agricultural education and entrepreneurship training to students of West and Southwest Philadelphia. Their youth operated farm, orchard and farmer’s market produces organic mustard greens, collard greens, several varieties of kale, okra, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries, raspberries, gooseberries, red currants, apples, kiwis, peaches, and pomegranates, among other edibles. In addition to growing, students take onsite classes in healthy cooking, local and international food access issues, and business planning. They’ve participated and presented at the Rooted In Communities conference at UPenn and Iowa State University and traveled to outdoor destinations including Hawk Mountain.

“We want to give these kids a sense of what’s happening on planet earth,” Walker says. “Most have never been out of their communities much less the city.”

Perhaps the most original piece of Earth’s Keepers programing is From Seed to Plant, a collaboration with Walker, Jacob Rivkin , an art instructor at UPenn, and Conita Pierson, a librarian at Kingsessing Public Library where the program is located.  The 7 to 10 year old participants plant carrots and broccoli seeds in a raised bed and document the process by drawing the vegetables as they mature. 

“[The students] would say, ‘wow, is that really broccoli.’” Walker says. “They had this, ‘I’ll eat this now!’ attitude just because they grew it. They were willing to try it raw—and they liked it.”

DANA HENRY is Innovation & Jobs News Editor for Flying Kite. Send feedback here.
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