Checking out free produce at a North Philly library

The Lillian Marrero Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia is the first library to partner with Philabundance to host a weekly free produce market.

Every week, tables are filled with donations from the Port of Philadelphia and area farmers. On the market’s first day, folding tables bent with the weight of bananas, apples, potatoes and lettuce.

“And we have green peppers, and those are a couple dollars a pound,” said Jessica Wyckoff, a Philabundance manager. “So when people are looking at their budget and heading to the store, these might be some of the first things that get cut out.“

The Marrero branch in North Philadelphia is one of about a dozen sites Philabundance uses to distribute between 3,000 and 5,000 pounds of donated produce a week as part of its Fresh For All program. The partnership, the only of its kind in the library system, is part of the 21st Century Libraries Initiative, which seeks to shift the role of libraries from information centers to community resource centers.

Tanya Rios-Marrero, the branch’s community outreach coordinator, said she’s planning a new garden and cooking demonstrations to go with the market.

“We’re really trying to shift that perception of what a library is in the community,” she said. “We’re not just an institution filled with books, we are community centers.”

Located in the Fairhill neighborhood, the branch serves residents in one of the city’s poorest ZIP codes.  Years before the branch closed for renovations in 2015, Philabundance stocked a food pantry in the branch’s basement. The memory of that program sparked the reboot.

“When I started working in this neighborhood about a year ago, food security was one of the loudest needs that I heard,” said Rios-Marrero.

On a recent cold and windy day, about 100 people picked up produce. The included families who recently migrated from Puerto Rico following the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

One of the food pantry’s original volunteers, Priscilla Preston, filled up two shopping bags.

“To find good ripe bananas at a reasonable price is hard,” said Preston whose doctor recommends she eat the fruit for its potassium instead of taking supplements.

Now on a fixed income and having limited mobility, Preston said she’s glad to have the market as a resource.

“It helps me stretch my food stamps,” she said. “Now I can go and maybe find a nice piece of meat that I can use for my Easter dinner.”

The market is held every Wednesday from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. in the library’s rear parking lot.

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