Volunteers using USDA grant to get food to the hungry

Volunteers Luis Montanez (left) and Willie Johnson from Health Partners Foundation help out at Front and Fitzwater Streets during a weekly food distribution.

In the small alleyway at Front and Fitzwater streets, there are big things happening.

Every Friday morning, the narrow street serves as a driver pickup point for a very important food drive, delivering thousands of pounds of fresh, healthy food to people who need it across the city.

The quiet intersection acts as a gathering spot for about 25 volunteers, who transfer food from a truck to their own vehicles, and they disperse to different parts of Philadelphia, delivering the valuable resources to people experiencing food insecurities.

The project is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant awarded to Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative in Lancaster County.

The farm contacted Stephanie Sena, a Queen Village resident and adjunct professor at Villanova University to help distribute the food. Sena is also the founder and executive director of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia, a nonprofit homeless shelter where students provide shelter, food and community needs to the homeless in the city. She was the perfect link to get a community project up and running.

“(Lancaster Farm Fresh) wanted to figure out how to get the food to people who were experiencing food insecurity throughout the Philadelphia region,” Sena said. “They reached out to me knowing I have a lot of connections to people who are struggling and they asked if I could coordinate and get the food to those people.”

Each week, a Lancaster Farm Fresh truck drops off 320 boxes containing fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Each box feeds a family of four for a week. Sena worked with City Hall, social workers and agencies to compile a database of 320 addresses of families that could benefit the most from the generous offerings.

Contents of a food box from Lancaster Farm Fresh contain fresh vegetables.

The food gets delivered right to families’ doorsteps, eliminating several factors that often surface with traditional food distribution sites, in which the recipient is tasked with waiting in long lines before picking up the food.

“One of the problems is that it is very hard to access,” Sena said. “Oftentimes there’s not a lot of good public transit near those people experiencing the most food insecurity. Even if it is, there’s a cost burden as well as a time and COVID burden. People who are food insecure tend to have other types of vulnerabilities as well.”

And the issue of public perception sometimes also plays a factor.

“The other issue is public shaming,” Sena said. “By standing in this long line, you’re demonstrating that you have food insecurities. But that is the model we have historically in the United States since the Great Depression. We wanted to create a model more accessible and equitable.”

Sena said she’s happy to help change the way food gets to people and she’s even happier that the type of food in the boxes has improved. Just a few months ago, Sena was a food box recipient, as she was raising a family as a single parent while having health issues and expensive medical costs. Sena was shocked when she opened the box.

“The box contained a can of beef, which I didn’t even know was a thing,” said Sena, a vegetarian. “It contained a bag of potato flakes, not real potatoes, and powdered milk. This is what the USDA has determined people with food insecurity need to eat?”

Protocol changed and now USDA money is sent to local farmers who provide more nutritious meals, instead of corporations handing out canned meat.

Volunteer Amber Abbas flexes after loading a car full of food boxes from Lancaster Farm Fresh. The boxes were distributed to people in Philadelphia experiencing food insecurity.

Lancaster Farm Fresh received a $1.36 million portion of the $50 million Pennsylvania was awarded in May in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program. It aimed to help Pennsylvania farmers who lost markets for their products due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally slated for six weeks, starting mid-May, Sena said more grants were awarded and her work will continue until at least the end of August, maybe longer.

“Hopefully it goes on after that,” Sena said. “The need is extreme here.”

The local impact has been evident, for both recipients and volunteers.

“It’s been really rewarding,” Sena said. “A lot of the neighbors here stop and thank me for doing the work. Many of them volunteer to distribute the food, too. I think it’s been an incredible experience. We’ve heard from a lot of the people who sent messages who said it helped them survive through the summer by using their money to pay for rent and utilities and not worry about food.”

Sena said there’s plenty more work to be done.

“It’s not a solution to me, it’s just a Band-Aid,” Sena said. “We need systemic change so that people are not struggling the way that they are. But right now, I think this is making a massive difference.”