On a typical Saturday morning in West Philadelphia, neighborhood residents flock to Clark Park to browse the weekly array of of fresh eggs, organic meats and dairy, homemade baked goods, and the latest harvest of fruits and vegetables. Patrons fill their baskets with carefully selected items, sampling all-natural nut butters, swapping recipes, and sniffing fresh herbs as they hunt for bargains. Large signs proclaiming, “We Accept EBT/SNAP” alert patrons that lack of cash need not deter them. The exchange of goods and conversation continues until mid-afternoon, as hundreds of customers stock up on the fresh fare.
“I’m here every week–even in the winter,” says Kaylen Deere, a West Philadelphia resident. As one of over 30 farmers markets in the city, this weekly gathering of regional farmers and artisans is just one of the reasons that Philadelphia is a hub for the growing movement towards local food.
While nationwide trends toward “farm-to-table” dining and sustainable agriculture continue to gain momentum, residents of the greater Philadelphia area are increasingly recognizing the bounty in their own backyards. Nestled among the fertile farmland and rich agriculture tradition of the region, Philadelphia is an ideal place for would-be “locavores.” In addition to frequenting their local farmers markets, many are signing up for Community Supported Agriculture deliveries, or scoping out locally sourced products at select grocery stores (South Philly Co-op and Mariposa are two favorites).
Many of these resources are made possible by the concerted efforts of farmers, vendors, and non-profit coordinators such as Fair Food Philly, which assists local farmers in finding outlets for their products. “The past fifteen years have seen a lot of positive change in Philadelphia,” says Mary Duffy, Director of Development and Communications at Fair Food Philly, “there’s greater awareness, access, and interest in eating locally.” Among the benefits of eating locally, says Duffy, are “a stronger local economy, lower environmental impact, and healthier, fresher foods.”
“There’s a wealth of amazing crops growing just outside the city, and we especially love the small, family-run farms.”
– Mary Duffy, Fair Food Philly
In addition, Fair Foods Philly runs a Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market which is stocked year-round with items from over 90 sustainable food producers from the region. “We have seasonal vegetables and fruits, sustainable and ethically-raised meats, jams, juice…and cheese,” says Duffy. “Our selection is the largest locally-sourced cheese variety in the city! Pennsylvania is one of the country’s premier dairy producers, and we love it all.” The Farmstand also runs a dollar matching program which allows customers using EBT/SNAP to receive up to $10 in “Double Dollars” each week. “I really think everyone can win when it comes to local eating,” says Duffy.
Kasey Esposito, a Community Associate for Farmers Markets at the Food Trust, likewise believes in the power of local food movements to bolster community health and economies. She worries, however, that “there are many people who live in environments where access to healthy food of any kind is not possible.”
At the Food Trust, a Philly-founded non-profit that has gained national recognition, Esposito and her associates work to bring fresh, affordable, and sustainable nutrition to underserved neighborhoods in Philadelphia. For Esposito, “issues of poverty and ill-health go hand-in-hand.” Much of the Food Trust’s outreach takes place in public health clinics, where ailing community members seek low-cost care. “We go to where the need is. We are working to bring healthy food to these people, but a lot depends on just getting the word out.”
While the Food Trust is active in educational programming in local schools and recreation centers, the organization also seeks to increase individual agency to access healthy food. “We have many resources to help make healthy choices a realistic option for people,” says Esposito. Bringing grocery stores and farmers markets to urban “food deserts”–neighborhoods where fast food and processed products are the only options– is the first step. In addition, the Food Trust’s “Philly Food Bucks” program allows EBT/SNAP customers to receive coupons redeemable for fruits and vegetables at local vendors. “Many people aren’t familiar with eating produce, but by allowing them a risk-free way to try fresh food, we’re seeing a lot of interest growing in healthier options. ” The Food Trust comes full-circle in its community-building objectives by ensuring that all produce at these markets are locally-sourced.
The Food Trust serves 400,000 customers annually, with 50% of sales taking the form of food assistance transactions. 77% of shoppers in our low-income markets indicated that prices for our fresh, local produce were “less expensive” or “about the same” as the stores in their neighborhood. -Kasey Esposito, The Food Trust
In 2014, the Food Trust is adding five new markets to its already-impressive twenty-four locations. “We could definitely use more volunteers,” says Esposito. To find out how you can get involved in the Food Trust, click here.
Outside of the farmers market circuit, locally-sourced restaurants and food artisans provide a bounty of opportunities to support neighboring agriculture. (Check out Philly Homegrown’s directory of locally-sourced venues, click here). “More and more food artisans and restaurants are opting for local ingredients,” says Duffy. “In my opinion, in addition to supporting a sustainable local food system, these products are also better quality.”
Even cost-conscious college students are finding ways to eat locally. Afnaan Moharram, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, tries to balance her budget while making intentional food choices. “I don’t eat completely locally, but I’ve been buying from farmer’s markets to ensure that I get a decent amount of my food from local farms,” says Moharram, “I wish I were able to eat local and organic 100% of the time, and ultimately I do hope to have the majority of the food I eat be local and organic.”
The good news: locavores come in all shapes and sizes, says Duffy, and any amount of effort can make a positive impact on the environment, local economy, and personal health. “If you’re not sure if it’s for you, I encourage you to just give it a try,” Duffy urges. “I think you’ll find it worthwhile. And delicious.”