Archive for July, 2012

Block Captains Forum next Saturday – tell your block captain to register today!

July 28, 2012

On August 4th, Block Captains from West Philadelphia have an exciting opportunity to network and develop their skills as community leaders and advocates.

The West Philadelphia Block Captains Forum will bring together block captains across West Philadelphia for a day of leadership development and building connections.

District Attorney Seth Williams will provide the kickoff keynote remarks and will also be a guest panelist in the workshop on Crime and Safety. Participating block captains will have a chance to win raffle prizes, and lunch and breakfast will be served. Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School will host the event at 5501 Cedar Avenue.

If you are a block captain, register today! See below for more information.

Other presenters and trainers include the Honorable Jacquelyn Frazier-Lyde (Municipal Court Judge), Police Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, and representatives from the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, the Department of Health, the Department of Community & Human Relations, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, and other experts from highly effective organizations.

The workshops at the Block Captains Forum will help Block Captains:

  • Learn how to use the INTERNET to find resources for your community;
  • Learn how to participate in key ZONING and planning decisions in your neighborhood;
  • Develop a community SAFETY strategy and identify partners who can help;
  • ENGAGE and lead neighbors to participate in neighborhood improvement;
  • Learn how to use city services to improve a VACANT properties; and
  • Access resources and tools for managing an EMERGENCY

LISC supports comprehensive community development efforts in West Philadelphia through an initiative called SCI-West. As part of our Connecting Citizens effort, SCI-West is working with The Partnership CDC and the Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) office to organize the Block Captains Forum and pilot the leadership development “institute” for block captains in West Philadelphia.

Block captains registered in the zip codes 19143, 19139, and 19104 are encouraged to attend and register before hand. You can register a number of different ways: online by filling out this form:, by calling Leon Robinson at The Partnership CDC  at (215) 662-1612, by emailing him at, or by stopping by the office at 4020 Market Street.

Financial Opportunity Center opening celebration on Thursday, July 26

July 24, 2012

SCI-West is excited to celebrate the opening of the West Philadelphia Financial Opportunity Center (FOC). Join us at PWDC, this Thursday July 26th at 10 am. Hear from LISC Director Michael Rubinger, representatives of our supporters from State Farm, Citi and Walmart, and our local FOC program partners UCD and APM.

The center will provide career and personal financial support to increase the financial bottom line for low-to-moderate income individuals. From 2012-13, the center aims to engage 300 residents, improve the income of 200 individuals, and place 60 people in jobs.

The FOC will build on the existing work of the Skills Initiative, a SCI West Signature Project led by UCD. The Skills Initiative is a workforce development program in West Philadelphia that combines on-the-job training with a community college education to offer medical field career paths.

Neighborhood Foods program helps urban farms move toward community ownership and financial sustainability

July 22, 2012

“We were made from dirt. So food that comes straight out of the ground – you can’t get better than that,” said Eric Daniels. Daniels, who is 19, was recently hired as a Farm Assistant at The Enterprise Center CDC’s Walnut Hill Community Farm in West Philadelphia. He believes that the food he grows and sells is better than anything you can get at the supermarket.

We were made from dirt. So food that comes straight out of the ground – you can’t get better than that

“Hiring Eric was a big step for us,” said Allison Blansfield of TEC-CDC. The Walnut Hill Community Farm, which is located next to the SEPTA El station at 46th and Market Streets, recently partnered with the Urban Tree Connection to support a community-based cooperative food project called Neighborhood Foods.  The program aims to create jobs by growing and selling food on urban farms. “As we partner with more farms, we can hire more community members as farmers,” said Blansfield.

Nestled between the backyards of homes on 46th and Farragut Streets is the Walnut Hill Community Farm.

Urban farm food for the neighborhood

The Neighborhood Foods partnership began this spring with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A CSA is an alternative, locally-based model of food distribution where a group of individuals pledge to support local farms by paying for a subscription or share. In exchange for their financial contribution, these supporters receive a box of vegetables and fruits each week. In this way, growers and consumers share the risks and benefits of growing local food.

“This isn’t grant-funded, so we’re looking to subsidize the low-income shares by using a two-tiered system,” Blansfield said. “We have market shares that are $600 for 22 weeks of produce, and subsidized shares that are only $245.” Currently, 62 shares have been sold, 9 of which are discounted for low-income families living in the neighborhoods where the farms are located: Walnut Hill and Haddington. That’s 12 more than their initial goal of 50 shares, and there is still a surplus in produce.

CSA members pick up their shares on Fridays at the farm stand, right next to the SEPTA Station.

This wouldn’t have been possible for the Walnut Hill Community Farm on its own. Combining its harvest with that of the Urban Tree Connection’s Haddington farm located at 53rd St. and Wyalusing St. provided the quantity and diversity of fruits and vegetables that make the CSA possible.

Toward a community cooperative

This is not about creating two financially sustainable nonprofit projects. This is about creating… a unified cooperative.

In addition to the CSA, both organizations aimed to make their farms more financially sustainable, transform the local food system, improve the community, and develop youth and community leadership in the process. Ultimately, the Neighborhood Foods program wants to stand on its own, as a community cooperative.

“This is not about creating two financially sustainable nonprofit projects,” explained Dylan Baird, who works for Urban Tree Connection and is the Business Manager for Neighborhood Foods. “This is about creating what will eventually be a multi-stakeholder organization—and that includes farmers, bread-makers, community members, and people who live around the garden and are invested and involved—where all those people are coming together under a unified cooperative.”

Who doesn’t want peaches growing in their backyard?

The two nonprofits that support the project now, The Enterprise Center and Urban Tree Connection, are working to direct grant funding toward educational programs that can deepen the impact of the farms, while increasing their revenue. “We’re both trying to expand our youth programs, so it made sense to partner on the youth program,” said Blansfield. Instruction around horticulture, nutrition, cooking, entrepreneurship, small business management, and community leadership will be folded into this summer’s youth program.

More than just jobs for youth

We’re trying to give youth a lot of responsibility, to be the drivers of change in the food system

Already, three jobs have been created on the farms as a result of Neighborhood Foods. Daniels, the Farm Assistant at Walnut Hill Community Farm, is one of these three new hires. In July and August, the Neighborhood Foods Summer Youth Program will employ 25 youth from the neighborhood like Daniels.  The new staff will expand the local food infrastructure of Walnut Hill and Haddington.

“It’s a job, but it’s more than a job,” said Daniels. “It’s helping me learn what’s going on behind the scenes in this community, how this small thing is helping the big picture. I’m learning a lot.” Daniels plans to go to school to become a Landscape Architect and to continue working with young people as he gets older.

Flowers are not only pretty – they attract bees and other beneficial wildlife.

Daniels admits that urban farming was not always fun or exciting. But after being introduced to gardens and growing food at school, he says, “Things just fell in place and I really started to like it. If I got up tomorrow and someone asked ‘Would you be willing to do this?’ I would be, paid or not.”

TEC-CDC and Urban Tree Connection hope the summer youth program will be transformative and life-changing in the same way for the 25 participants. As Blansfield said, “We’re trying to give youth a lot of responsibility, to be the drivers of change in the food system.”

Sustainability at the Walnut Hill Community Farm: linking transit, community, and urban farming

We want the infrastructure to continue to work for the community with or without us

One of the Walnut Hill Community Farm’s greatest assets is its location: SEPTA-owned land next to the 46th and Market train station and TEC-CDC in the Walnut Hill neighborhood. Because of its location, many residents pass the farm on their way to and from work, increasing its exposure and adding to the community’s sense of ownership. “A lot of residents nearby are actually gardening themselves now,” said Blansfield. The farm stand and CSA program also benefit from the added exposure and foot traffic.

And if peaches aren’t enough, well, then they have figs, too!

The farm provides a positive example of repurposed vacant land and collaboration among city agencies and community groups, as the transit authority and local institutions have been supportive of the project. SEPTA provided The Enterprise Center with a 30-year lease on the land to, as Blansfield explained, “create a community project that hopefully one day will be mostly run by the community.”

SEPTA also installed rainwater collection cisterns next to its station for the farm and will be installing a stand to hold solar panels for a solar-powered water pump. The solar pump will take the farm off the grid, delivering collected rain water to the farm through a drip irrigation system that was designed and installed by Drexel University engineering students.

The farm links multiple efforts around sustainability: mass transit, urban organic farming, youth empowerment, smart growth, community ownership, and renewable energy.

Additional improvements are planned for other properties adjacent to the 46th and Market transit stop. These include the proposed renovation of the 4601 Market St. building into the city’s Police Headquarters, the new Karabots Center of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the envisioned Enterprise Heights transit-oriented development. The Enterprise Center’s new Center for Culinary Enterprises at 48th and Pine is also opening this September. All of these nearby institutions will create opportunities for partnership for the Walnut Hill Farm and may help ensure the sustainability of projects like Neighborhood Foods.

Every project hits snags. Other improvements to the farm are planned, but many are awaiting approval from the city or pending the receipt of special taxes and fees. For example, solar lights will be installed throughout the property and additional landscaping and benches are planned for the pocket park that shares the vacant lot with the farm. “We want the infrastructure to continue to work for the community with or without us,” Blansfield said.

Fresh, green dill seed carries the full flavor of summer: add it to salsas and salads!

Ultimately, the approach of the Walnut Hill Community Farm will continue to bring mass transit, urban organic farming, youth empowerment, smart growth, community ownership, and renewable energy under the same umbrella of sustainability.

An expanding neighborhood urban farming infrastructure in Haddington

A cooperative run by everyday people is just so cool…

A large vacant parcel in the middle of the block at 53rd and Wyalusing – more than twice the size of Walnut Hill Community Farm – has been transformed by the Urban Tree Connection (UTC) and neighbors into a large, productive urban farm. UTC hired two farmers to expand production for Neighborhood Foods, which has made the joint-run CSA possible.

On Saturday morning, two volunteers, both named Joanne, sold produce at the Neighborhood Foods farm stand on 53rd Street near the entrance to the farm. One Joanne sits on the founding board of Neighborhood Foods; the other is retired and volunteers as a farmer with the project. They talked to passersby and customers about the farm, swapped delicious recipes, and shared their unique vision for cooperative community ownership.

Since Joanne retired, she has helped manage one of Neighborhood Foods’ cooperative farm properties: The Annex. Here, she’s harvesting romaine lettuce for the farm stand.

Meanwhile on the farm, neighbors Nicole and Lisa taught a cooking class to 15 participants from the area, young and old. Everyone watched the demonstration and took part in relishing the blueberry fruit smoothie and sautéed kale made from farm fresh ingredients. These classes show neighbors ideas for using CSA produce to make healthy, delicious meals. They also bring people together. “A large goal is to bring people out of their houses, get people hanging together around gardens,” said Baird. “I guess we’re trying to reunite the neighborhood, although that’s pretty lofty.”

Having a lofty vision won’t necessarily get you there, but it is an important first step. This cooperative farm in Haddington is growing fast, and its vision is spreading among neighbors. The collaborative has expanded into other vacant lots, growing vegetables in more than five locations and counting. Recently, community members expressed interest in tending their own gardens, and UTC responded by building raised beds in the corner of a nearby memorial park.

Lettuce, spinach, and kale are simple to grow and full of nutrients like Vitamin C, fiber, and iron.

There’s still a long way to go toward community ownership. “Largely it is still managed and controlled and owned by people from outside the neighborhood,” said Baird. “It’s hard to start a business in an urban neighborhood. Trying to transition from it being financed with grants and all this outside support is really tough.”

The new CSA partnership promises to put Neighborhood Foods on the path to financial sustainability. That will make it possible to create jobs for neighbors in the growing, community-based local food economy. “Everyone has something to offer and so everyone should have some financial equity in this organization,” Baird said.

Tomatoes are the king of summer crops: full of flavor and incredibly healthy.

By engaging the community in the building of a sustainable cooperative, Neighborhood Foods is recruiting the people, developing the talent, and inspiring the passion it will need to remain successful and true to its mission. Baird agrees: “A cooperative run by everyday people is just so cool – it’s the reason why I care so much about it and the reason why our farmers just work their butts off.”

Philadelphia LISC and SCI-West have supported The Enterprise Center CDC in building a healthy food system in West Philadelphia. LISC funds supported the Education Programs Associate and PUFFA Youth Supervisor, who works with youth from TEC’s Leaders About Business after school program (TEC-LAB), incorporating them into SALT & PUFFA gatherings, an Advocacy Institute being sponsored by the Health Promotion Council, and the Neighborhood Foods Youth Program. With support the Aetna Foundation, LISC provided grants for the development of a culinary business incubator, the operation of youth-based community gardening, and the implementation of community advocacy to garner healthier foods in the city’s schools. TEC-CDC and the Walnut Hill Community Farm are critical stakeholders in the 46th and Market Street Collaborative. And all of these efforts are part of SCI-West, LISC’s comprehensive community development initiative in West Philadelphia.

Visit the Neighborhood Foods website:

Find out more at The Enterprise Center CDC website:

Check out this video about Urban Tree Connection and visit their website:

We all have to eat, so eat local if you can!

What is the key to a food secure Mantua? The patience, persistence, and hard work of an organized neighborhood.

July 20, 2012

Margaret James checks to make sure she has her purse, pocketbook, SEPTA tokens, and house keys before leaving her apartment. At 70 years old, Margaret takes her time walking down her steps. She makes her way down the sidewalk, six blocks to the corner of Mantua Avenue. Knowing that some of her neighbors are disabled or bedridden, she is glad that she can still get around all right. She stands and waits at the bus stop, her hat blocking her eyes from the sun. The pavement steams in July in Philadelphia.

The 38 bus arrives and Margaret slowly, deliberately climbs aboard. She is a little winded, happy there is a seat free for her on this bus. “If I’m lucky,” she thinks, “I can get my groceries and make it back home in three hours.” Thirty stops later, Margaret exits the bus. She walks down the parking lot past the shiny hot cars, grabs a cart, and heads into the Pathmark grocery store.

These stores down here only sell beer and fast food. And fresh vegetables? Forget that!

Every week for the past seven years, Margaret has made her trip to the grocery store. She lives in Mantua, a community in West Philadelphia where, for a long time, residents have had to leave their neighborhood to find fresh produce.

There are supermarkets that are closer to Mantua than Pathmark, but they are less accessible for some Mantua residents. “I would have to take two buses to go to the supermarket on 43rd St.” she explains. “It’s rough; it really is.”

In addition, the stores in her immediate area don’t stock the fresh vegetables she needs. “These stores down here only sell beer and fast food,” she said. “And fresh vegetables? Forget that! They put some out there, but they are not fresh. They might sell a head of cabbage that’s been there for 10-11 days, and it’s turning brown. Who wants that? I’m not going to buy it, that’s why I go all the way out to Pathmark.”

Confirming what residents have known through experience, Mantua was designated as a “Low Supermarket Access Area” by The Reinvestment Fund. Mantua wasn’t always this way. Margaret remembers getting her food from the local supermarket and street vendors – but that was over 7 years ago, before the store was burned down and the street vendor found a new location after he was robbed. Increasing crime and violence drove businesses away, she says.

For those who want to understand more fully how neighborhoods like Mantua can improve health outcomes, food access, and overall quality of life, Margaret’s story is illuminative.

Often missing and obscured in the official conversation are the voices and experiences of residents who live in the low-income neighborhoods that are so widely studied and debated.

Most advocates feel that addressing the lack of access to fresh, healthy food in low income neighborhoods across the country will help turn around their disproportionately high rates of chronic disease and other poor health outcomes. Recent research and debates over food and health policy have raised questions about the nature and impact of food deserts: neighborhoods with few options for residents to obtain healthy food. For example, the New York Times reported on two studies which questioned the relationship among the availability of food, low-income neighborhoods, and rates of obesity.

While the research may complicate the picture of those relationships, it doesn’t help us understand the positive benefits of available fresh food, or the costs of limited food access. This was LISC Director Michael Rubinger’s point in his letter to the editor that highlighted the important neighborhood-wide benefits of supermarkets and other fresh food outlets.

Listening to the voices and stories of Mantua residents will help everyone understand better what major problems residents face and how they can be addressed.

Moreover, many studies like this focus on a small number of variables across diverse communities. After all, they are trying to describe a complicated situation where social, economic, and environmental factors intersect with individual and cultural preferences.

Often missing and obscured in the official conversation are the voices and experiences of residents who live in the low-income neighborhoods that are so widely studied and debated. These are people like Margaret James, people who spend an hour or more on a bus to get to the market, who care for neighbors and family members that are suffering from diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, and who are working daily to overcome obstacles of poverty and crime. At the same time, many of these neighborhoods are filled with people who, like James, are working for positive and community-driven transformation.

When the group organized around fresh food access, they recognized that no one strategy would solve the problem.

Margaret and her neighbors, were used to having to travel to get the food they wanted. In fact, they had gotten used to crime, blighted vacant lots, foreclosure, unemployment, and an increasing cost of living, too.

In early 2012, the Mt. Vernon Manor subsidized apartment complex received a Federal planning grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Philadelphia LISC convened a group of stakeholders and hired a community organizer to invite residents together to lead their own community’s planning process. The process promised to involve open and transparent collaboration among the stakeholders. Along the way, people living in Mantua got involved. These were people who cared deeply about their neighbors and community and who wanted to roll up their sleeves and work for meaningful change.

photo by david ferris

Mantua residents of all ages are taking action to improve their community.

One of Margaret’s goals was to bring fresh food to her neighborhood, so she was a perfect match for the Health & Wellness Task Force.

Residents first worked to understand and describe the priority issues that affected the community. What’s more, they described how the issues intersected and overlapped. For example, since Margaret knew the history of the neighborhood, she knew that problems of unemployment and a lack of activities for young people had led to crime; she knew that crime had pushed the two fresh food vendors to leave the area; and she knew that crime and problems with infrastructure (sidewalks, lighting, blight, etc.) made residents feel unsafe to walk or exercise. All of these issues had implications for the food security and the overall health of people in Mantua.

After months of meetings, the Health & Wellness Task Force compiled a list of priority issues they wanted to see addressed, as well as a list of recommended strategies for improving health in the neighborhood. What emerged was a recognition that the health and wellness of people living in Mantua depended on a number of factors: “access to appropriate, timely healthcare and pharmaceuticals; a need for clean, safe, outdoor play space, including recreation centers, green space, art, and trails; and access to healthy food to buy,” according to health task force member Claire Baker of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

When the group organized around fresh food access, they recognized that no one strategy would solve the problem.

Let’s bring food to our neighborhood in every way possible.

Instead, the group advocated for several small strategies. Mantua resident Rebecca Rose recognized that, like Margaret, “A lot of people don’t have cars. They don’t have that access, so they just have to buy from the grocery stores around here.” And what’s available nearby is limited: “There are plenty of canned goods on the shelf. The delis will fry you something up or make hoagies, but you know that’s not so tremendously nutritious for people. I only use the small grocery stores if I am walking by and I need something minor. But their rates are higher.”

The group thought that multiple strategies could lead to more fresh fruits and veggies being sold and consumed in the neighborhood. For example, a food truck or street vendor could offer healthier options in the short term, corner stores could be encouraged and supported to stock fresh fruits and veggies in the medium term, and a larger supermarket could be invited to the neighborhood in the long run.

Another strategy the group recommended was to grow food in the neighborhood in backyard and community gardens. “Being able to grow your own is one avenue of increasing food security in the neighborhood,” said Claire. “And gardens have benefits beyond food production: they make neighborhoods more livable and more welcoming, and the act of gardening is a healthy outdoor activity that can engage people across generations.”

photo by david ferris

Using vacant lots to create community gardens and urban farms, according to Mantua residents, is one key piece in increasing the food security of people in the community.

Beyond bringing fresh food to people and growing it locally, the group saw the need for education and promotion of healthy eating. Gerald Washington said, “When we do get a market or stores that have fresh fruits and vegetables, we’re still going to have to promote it to where it catches on, to where people are buying that food.” Rebecca suggested teaching residents about fresh foods and healthy cooking, in a fun, delicious way that would appeal a variety of people.

Supplying folks with healthier food and building awareness are not enough if people can’t afford to eat healthier – or even if they think they can’t afford it. “There are lots of food banks distributing food to the community,” says Rebecca. “You have to look at the income levels to support a healthy habit.” As a result, a strategy to connect residents to benefits, job resources, and financial coaching becomes important to health.

In addition, Margaret suggests engaging and employing Mantua’s youth around these goals: : “If enough organizations get involved and get with these young men, they might see another way to go instead of selling drugs. Maybe that would help.”

The final proposal of the task force compiled all of these ideas and more. Claire summarized it: “We just know we want more food and better food, and there are multiple ways to do that.  Let’s bring them all to Mantua. Let’s bring food to our neighborhood in every way possible.”

We know what would be good for Mantua, but we have to invite people to come up with a strategy for implementing the plans.

Eventually, the Health & Wellness proposal was added to those of the other task forces who were meeting: youth, physical environment, economic development, safety, and education. What emerged was a comprehensive community platform: a collective recognition of neighborhood challenges and a roadmap to successfully addressing them through resident-led efforts.

Despite all this hard work, some residents have been skeptical of whether anything will come of the planning. Gerald has been engaged since the beginning, offering astute, practical, level-headed criticisms. He reminded everyone, “We know what would be good for Mantua, but we have to invite people to come up with a strategy for implementing the plans. We can talk about it, but until we got a way to make it happen, then all it’s going to be is talk. Who’s going to make it happen?” (Thankfully, Gerald has stayed involved, like Margaret, contributing to the value and realism of the plan and recommendations for its implementation.)

To ensure the work implementing this plan would continue, Mantua residents also worked to build a civic association. The neighborhood has not had a truly resident-driven body for years. Now this new organization can work to advocate for city support for the community, champion initiatives and programs that will benefit residents, and provide accountability to developers and speculators looking for opportunities in the area.

Margaret has already seen positive changes in the neighborhood since residents got organized. “The drug dealers are not standing on the corners like they used to since We Are Mantua! I see a big change with that,” she said. “It’s encouraging. But still, businesses are scared to come down here.” Despite the progress, she faces other challenges as well. Margaret wishes she could more quickly gain access to the vacant lot near her house to build a community garden.

This time around, the key to creating real change in Mantua is collaboration between the residents and the stakeholder organizations.

Early action projects have been essential for keeping people involved in the overall neighborhood revitalization process. These projects create small but tangible victories for the neighborhood. Several projects aimed at improving food security and health in Mantua are already underway.

The West Philadelphia Fresh Food Hub has responded by working to bring fresh food to spots within walking distance of Mantua. At specific times throughout the week, the truck also brings food directly to libraries, community centers, and senior apartments within Mantua. The Hub sells affordable, fresh, local, and organic food, attracting customers with low prices and friendly service. Grants from LISC and others have helped the Hub get off the ground, quickly, addressing concerns articulated by the Health and Wellness task force.

photo by david ferris

Mantua residents can purchase fresh fruits and veggies, many of which are local and organic, at the West Philly Fresh Food Hub, usually stationed at 37th and Lancaster Ave.

The taskforce is also trying to start community gardens on vacant land, which is abundant in the neighborhood. “We have been trying to get this empty lot over here ever since we started We Are Mantua!” Margaret said. “This empty lot is just sitting there. That would make a beautiful garden.”

The community’s efforts would be fruitless without the advocacy of LISC and collaboration among stakeholders.  Other developers and agencies have made empty promises to Margaret and her neighbors in the past. This time around, the key to creating real change in Mantua is collaboration between the residents and the stakeholder organizations. Leaders like Margaret organize, motivate, and energize residents, while articulating goals for the community; institutional partners bring resources to the neighborhood to establish early victories and carry out the projects envisioned by the residents. Without the vision and hard work of organized residents, efforts to affect positive change in Mantua would be in vain.

We have to overcome all those factors. We have got to get up that hill.

Margaret, Gerald, Rebecca, and all of the residents engaged in the process of improving  Mantua provide an inspiring example of what is possible when residents tackle the challenges of their communities with responsibility and courage. Improving Mantua’s food systems and the health of its residents will take significant commitment and hard work from the community’s leaders. Affecting lasting change will be a difficult challenge.

“You know, a lot of our neighbors, haven’t had a lot of successes in their life, so they are not optimistic,” Gerald explained. “But nevertheless, we have to overcome all those factors. We have got to get up that hill.”

New Food Hub Makes Fresh Food Affordable in West Philly

July 2, 2012

“I know a lot of people don’t think it’s possible to eat organic–to eat fruits and vegetables, healthy food–but it is possible,” says Lauren Marsella, who works at the new West Philadelphia Fresh Food Hub. Marsella wants residents in Mantua, Belmont and West Powelton to know: “It’s possible! This food is being grown nearby. It is affordable.”

Not only that, but it is right around the corner. The West Philadelphia Fresh Food Hub, a partnership between two urban agriculture groups, Preston’s Paradise and Greensgrow Farms, has adapted the produce truck model to bring healthy, organic, local food to the neighborhood, which has a shortage of fresh food options.

“It’s possible! This food is being grown nearby. It is affordable.”

Everyone should be able to find and afford fresh, healthy food in their neighborhood.

That belief has presented a complicated challenge to those involved in the production, distribution, and sale of local and fresh food. Take Mantua for example, a community identified as having Low Supermarket Access by The Reinvestment Fund and whose residents listed fresh food access among its priority recommendations for increasing the neighborhood’s quality of life. Organizations like the Fresh Food Hub are working to find solutions in neighborhoods such as Mantua. They see the interconnected links between a lack of supermarkets; unavailable fresh, organic, or local food; diet-related health conditions; poverty; and a lack of connection to where food comes from.

Mecca Ellerby shows off the diverse product mix at the Fresh Food Hub. Ellerby shares her knowledge of local and fresh food that she learned from the Urban Nutrition Initiative with customers.

Also consider Powelton Village, Belmont, West Powelton, and Saunders Park: each of these neighborhoods is relatively close to businesses classified as supermarkets, but neighbors are still spending 80% of their food dollars outside of the community. “Clearly something is not working for the majority of neighborhoods,” says Ryan Kuck, a resident of Belmont, co-founder of Preston’s Paradise, and leader of the West Philadelphia Fresh Food Hub.

Kuck says the idea and effort for the Hub emerged out of community conversations and collaborations. “It really became clear once we started gardening in our neighborhood. When we starting making fresh food available, all these people came out.”

Kuck and his colleagues began by thinking about how to expand urban farming and the local food system in West Philadelphia, building on the success of Kensington’s Greensgrow Farms and other models. “Our vision is a neighborhood food center,” Kuck explains. “It’s not going to be a grocery store, it’s going to be an independent urban food center that can provide training and outreach and educational opportunities, that can provide prepared food, that can provide diverse products.”

A food truck was a quick, low-cost, and culturally familiar business model that allowed the Fresh Food Hub to start selling fresh food. After convening members of the community and stakeholders in the local food movement to help shape the projects’ goals and evaluation plan, Kuck says, “We realized we just had to open, to figure out what we could do, what we couldn’t do, and what was needed.”

Since it opened two months ago, the Fresh Food Hub is bringing in $300 in revenue from 60-70 customers per day. The project’s early success is attributed to the innovation and the careful planning process of the partners and stakeholders who shaped the project.

First, the Fresh Food Hub employs two staff members to ensure maximum face-to-face interactions with customers and residents. “People like human interaction,” Kuck explains. “There’s no one to engage you around your food decisions in the supermarket.” It helps that the employees are local. “We hired all people that live in the neighborhood on purpose,” says Kuck. “We’re saying, ‘Look at these people that live next door to you. Look at the tremendous wealth of knowledge that they have.’ This is important for neighborhood pride.”

Customers and passersby are engaging the Hub’s staff in conversation about their food choices. Lauren Marsella, who works at the Hub, thinks this has been essential to getting and keeping customers. “I have to admit, I underestimated people, because I didn’t think as many people would ask about our food,” she said. “I have been blown away by how much people ask about it. They ask where it’s grown, they ask if it’s local, they ask what ingredients are, they ask all kinds of questions – which is great. They care where their food comes from; that’s another thing that keeps them coming back to us.” On several occasions, Marsella has shared recipes with customers. Staff person Mecca Ellerby adds, “It’s a very comfortable environment. We’re not in such a big rush all the time, so we can talk to them. It’s laid back. They know our names and we know theirs.”

“We travel back and forth to different locations to make sure that we get to those different underserved communities.”

Second, the Hub also takes advantage of the truck’s mobility, without compromising consistency. The truck parks at the intersection of 37th  Street and Lancaster Avenue for the majority of the week, from noon to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. This provides consistency that neighbors and followers can depend on, and takes advantage of student and consumer traffic on Lancaster Ave. At other times throughout the week, the truck moves directly to where its target audience is: community centers, libraries, senior centers, and block parties throughout Mantua, West Powelton and Belmont. Ellerby said, “We travel back and forth to different locations to make sure that we get to those different underserved communities.”

Before the launch of the Fresh Food Hub, Ryan Kuck brought a fresh food truck to our Green Block Build in March. The truck continues to visit block parties and other neighborhood events.

Third, modest grant funding allowed the project to get off the ground quickly, while maintaining the affordability of fresh food. “The role of the nonprofit is to push the envelope,” says Kuck. “This is why we have grant money. It’s to try these ideas that we don’t know if they’re going to work, as opposed doing extensive market studies and only doing things that are guaranteed to profit.” LISC provided the Fresh Food Hub with a small grant through SCI-West, a comprehensive community development initiative in West Philadelphia.

Fourth, the Fresh Food Hub is able to set produce prices near or below prices for similar items at ShopRite and Whole Foods. Not surprisingly, the prices have attracted the attention of residents and passersby. Marsella, who is also a resident of Mantua, says, “I shop here. If I didn’t work here, I would still shop here. And we’re not losing money.”

As the network grows, more food produced in West Philadelphia will be consumed by neighbors, and more dollars being spent on food will support local growers and sellers instead of leaving the neighborhood.

Finally, the Fresh Food Hub is supporting the growth of a local food economy, a network of consumers, farmers, gardeners, and retailers. “We are getting our food from a lot of local gardens: Teens 4 Good, Mantua Gardens, Preston’s Paradise,” Marsella explains. “I think that really helps us be sustainable – we sustain them and they sustain us.” As the network grows, more food produced in West Philadelphia will be consumed by neighbors, and more dollars being spent on food will support local growers and sellers instead of leaving the neighborhood.

The Fresh Food Hub hopes to do more than just sell local, fresh food to Mantua residents. “When we’re looking at long term planning of the project,” Kuck explains, “we’re looking to have multiple stakeholders and buy-in in different areas, so that the sustainability is carried forward.”

Kuck invited neighborhood, nonprofit and urban food system stakeholders to join an Advisory Committee for the project, including representatives from SCI-West and LISC. The goal of the committee is to provide both guidance and accountability to help the Hub reach its goals of becoming financially sustainable and demonstrating positive community impact in its first 3 years. The committee worked to prioritize goals and identified strategies for measuring impact.

Though it’s early to measure the project’s impact, the staff is happy with their progress. “We’re doing well, and I hope that this can grow,” Marsella said. At the very least, the strategy of providing affordable, fresh and local food in a culturally familiar setting, at a convenient location, and with plenty of human interaction is already earning repeat customers.

More than that, the Fresh Food Hub is also providing a way for residents to engage with the farmers, growers and sellers in their food system. According to Kuck, “If food is the thing we all share, by gathering around food, we can find lots of other things we share.  Hopefully this can lead to all types of neighborhood interventions that none of us could do individually.”