New Food Hub Makes Fresh Food Affordable in West Philly

“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.”

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