by Emily Neil, Staff Writer @E_B_Neil | Contact Emily
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The partnership between Philabundance and the Lillian Marrero Library offers free fruits and vegetables to community residents — including the hundreds of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria now living in the area.
It was a rainy, overcast day, but the parking lot behind Lillian Marrero Library in the Fairhill community of North Philadelphia was full of life, as close to 200 community members passed through and greeted one another, and volunteers handed out potatoes, cabbage, melons, and various other fruits and vegetables. At one end of the parking lot, a cooking demonstration led by nutritionists showed how to mix cabbage, peppers, and other ingredients into a fast, easy salad, while those gathered tried the samples and gathered in groups, chatting and exchanging news as reggaeton and bachata music played over loudspeakers.
Every aspect of the Fresh For All free farmers market, run by Philabundance in partnership with the Lillian Marrero Library every Wednesday afternoon from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. since it opened in March, is organized with the goal of promoting connection, creativity, and health to uplift community members — even and especially those facing the most difficult of times, noted Philabundance program coordinator Jose Vargas as he looked out on the gathering.
“You see the amount of people that are coming out,” said Vargas. “We’ve also been able to attract people from Puerto Rico that were displaced because of the hurricane, so it’s good to be back here, to have this program in a neighborhood where it really needs it.”
According to Providence Center community organizer and citywide activist Charito Morales, around 200 families who have been displaced by Hurricane Maria are living in the immediate area, many of whom have been able to benefit from the program.
Morales, who volunteers at Fresh For All every Wednesday at her lunch hour, said that in addition to being a help, facilitating access to fruits and vegetables gives those recently arrived from Puerto Rico a taste of the fresh produce they left behind.
“They’ve been living in the hotels, a couple of families, and some of them live in basements, and they need this. And that brings them really close [to] home because that’s what they eat on a daily basis,” Morales said of some of those now living in the neighborhood who were displaced by Hurricane Maria, adding, “The only thing over here you have to purchase them, over there you grow them.”
Rosita Torres, a Fresh For All client and local resident from Puerto Rico, said that the service is helpful both for those recently displaced and others in the community who are low-income, a point echoed by Nelly Velazquez, another local resident and Puerto Rican who survived Hurricane Maria while on the island caring for a sick family member.
Velazquez said that the Fresh For All produce has been “a help,” and supplements the $90 in food stamps per month which she receives through Social Security.
The produce itself is taken from the general Philadelphia wholesale produce market, as well as the port of Philadelphia, said Philabundance communications manager Samantha Retamar, explaining that Philabundance sorts through the produce that has been over ordered, selecting fruits and vegetables that are still good so that instead of being thrown out can then be made available for free to various communities throughout the city via the Fresh For All program.
Plus, Retamar added, it’s a “win win” that benefits the produce sellers as well, lowering the cost of their dumping fees, which are usually charged by the pound.
Retamar said that what she loves about the program itself is that the food provided to their clients is “nothing that I wouldn’t give to my mother or to my nephew, or to my grandmother.”
“This is all perfectly good food that we need,” Retamar said, noting, as other community members did, that the healthiest options provided for free at the market are also among the most expensive products to buy at the supermarket.
The program is a revival of a similar program that the library and Philabundance had collaborated on for several years, before ending it six years ago due to renovation processes the library was undergoing. The end of that program left “a kind of void in the neighborhood for a program like this,” said Vargas, adding that prior to bringing the “roving farmer’s market” back to the area once again this year, the community “was kind of left barren.”
Tania-María Ríos Marrero, community organizer at Lillian Marrero Library, agreed that demand for improved access to fresh food in the Fairhill community is clear, and informed their work in implementing the partnership.
“There’s a very sort of obvious, blatant, and stated need from the community around food access, so it’s just us as organizations responding to that need,”Marrero said.
Photography by Emily Neil