Philly Food Bucks brings local produce to low-income residents

As part of their reporting for Philadelphia Neighborhoods this summer, Lindsay Wessell and Saba Abbasi visited the farmer’s market at Liberty Lands Park to see how the use of Philly Food Bucks is helping increase access to fresh, local food for the area’s low-income residents and build community along the way.

Northern Liberties, which has experienced significant gentrification over the past two decades, lacked a major grocery store until the opening of a Superfresh at Second Street and Girard Avenue in 2011. Many residents’ reliance on expensive specialty grocers or corner stores was relieved by Superfresh, but access to healthy, locally-grown products remained an issue for low-income residents of the neighborhood until this year.

The Food Trust established a weekly farmers’ market at Northern Liberties’ Liberty Lands Park that is part of the Philly Food Bucks initiative, which was launched in 2010 by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and The Food Trust. Philly Food Bucks are coupons designed to increase the use of ACCESS cards and SNAP food stamp benefits to purchase fresh produce at 25 Philadelphia farmers’ markets in low-income communities.

The Food Trust operates all 25 participating farmers’ markets, most of which are located in areas that lack access to healthy, locally-grown foods. These markets accept SNAP food stamps and ACCESS cards to encourage low-income residents to purchase their produce from local farmers, and customers who use their ACCESS cards or SNAP food stamps at the participating farmers’ markets receive a $2 Philly Food Bucks coupon for every $5 spent on fruits and vegetables. Coupons can be redeemed at participating markets to help pay for future fresh produce purchases, effectively increasing the purchasing power of low-income farmers’ market shoppers by 40 percent.

 “We accept the food bucks for low-income families,” said Jamal Bell, the farmers’ market manager for Urban Tree Connection.

Neighborhood Foods, which was founded by Urban Tree Connection members, is the urban farming and grassroots community development organization that teamed up with The Food Trust to open Liberty Lands’ first Philly-Food-Bucks-friendly farmers’ market.

“The farmers’ market is designed around low-income urban families so that’s why we grow,” Bell said. “The proceeds go back into the market.”

According to The Food Trust’s website, residents of low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia are half as likely to have access to quality grocery stores as residents of high-income neighborhoods. Over 30% of Philadelphia residents receive food assistance benefits but usage of those benefits at farmers’ markets has been relatively low.

“The importance is to try to educate urban communities to eat healthy,” Bell said. “Eating healthy fights obesity, it fights a lot of different diseases that mainly plague the black community. Each vegetable that you buy from Neighborhood Foods has a nutrition chart to tell you what that particular vegetable does for your body.”

Obesity is a risk factor for many diseases and health conditions, like strokes, heart disease and type two diabetes. Low-income residents and minorities face unequal health burdens from obesity-related conditions, and the lack of walkable access to healthy, affordable foods is a well-documented contributor to these disparities.

The Food Trust defines walkable access to healthy food in different areas by assessing supermarkets, convenience stores, produce carts, corner stores and farmers’ markets within 0.5 miles of a given place. Vendors are assigned a score and service area reflecting their relative size, operating hours and the quality and availability of healthy food options for purchase.

Until Superfresh opened, low-income residents in the Northern Liberties area had low-to-no walkable access to healthy food. And until the opening of the Food-Trust-sponsored farmers’ market at Liberty Lands, they had even lower access to locally-grown products.

“This is our first year in Northern Liberties,” said Bell. “Everything is freshly grown. We basically grow 90% of this ourselves, and we have a connection with a farmer out in Lancaster.”

Largely due to efforts made by The Food Trust and the Philadelphia Department of Health’s Get Healthy Philly Initiative, from 2010 to 2012 the amount of Philadelphians living in areas with high poverty and low-to-no walkable access to healthy food retailers decreased by 17%, with 61,000 fewer residents living in low-to-no walkable access areas. The number of farmers’ markets grew from 43 to 62.

Over 300,000 Philadelphians still live in neighborhoods with high poverty and low-to-no walkable access to healthy food retailers, and they saw no changes between 2010 and 2012. However, according to a memo published by Philadelphia 2035, a project of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, walkable access to healthy food in Northern Liberties has been significantly impacted not only by the opening of Superfresh, but by the Liberty Lands farmers’ market, improving surrounding low walkable access areas to moderate or good.

The initiative is regarded as a win-win for both farmers and their customers. The Food Trust’s farmers’ markets help sustain regional farms by serving over 400,000 customers in the Philadelphia region. Since its inception, the Philly Food Bucks initiative has provided over $100,000 worth of fresh, local and affordable food to low-income Philadelphia residents, and Snap sales at the Trust’s farmers’ markets has increased by over 375%. These resources contribute to the sustainability of local agriculture and boosting Pennsylvania farmers’ revenue.

“The neighborhood has been really receptive and really supportive of the market,” Food Trust Market Director Lisa Kelly said. “The farmers have been really supportive of it. They’re making money from it.”

However, the benefits do not end at increased access to healthy food and sustainable local farming. According to Dylan Baird, Urban Tree Conneection’s business manager, the markets create a sense of community.

“I think it’s an opportunity. People come out and it’s not like going to the grocery store where you’re in your own little world. There’s often conversations in line, people are coming from a walking distance, we invite other people in the neighborhood who do flea markets, or come out and grill and sell their stuff. It’s kind of just a place for people to come together, like the old vision of the marketplace or how you would envision a market in Morocco.”

The farmers’ market at Liberty Lands Park, which is on Third Street between Poplar and George Streets, is open 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Thursday from June to November.

— Lindsay Wessell and Saba AbbasiPhiladelphia Neighborhoods

 Philadelphia Neighborhoods is a publication of Temple’s Multimedia Reporting Lab. PlanPhilly is a Philadelphia Neighborhoods partner.

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