The summer of COVID-19 has been a sweltering one in Philadelphia. Despite the extreme temperatures, it has also been one of unanticipated connections between produce farms in southeastern Pennsylvania, families and youths in an underserved inner-city Latino neighborhood, and building on the power of partnerships.
The COVID-19 pandemic set off a series of events that disrupted food distribution to corner stores, bodegas, and markets in stressed Philadelphia communities, to the extent that food access became a primary concern for many families and individuals with children. This was indeed the case for Norris Square, a vibrant, multi-generational Puerto Rican neighborhood in lower north Philadelphia.
There is a back story to this. Penn State Extension in Philadelphia County has a deep history of collaboration with Norris Square Community Alliance, providing program assistance for urban gardens, healthy homes and schools, integrated pest management, and nutrition education for more than 20 years.
Norris Square is also one of Pennsylvania’s three Well Connected Communities sites. Led by the National 4-H Council and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Well Connected Communities fosters coalition building and youth leadership to help effect positive change around community health challenges. It is a broadly defined initiative which encompasses food systems and access to fresh, seasonal food options.
Meanwhile, a dedicated Norris Square community activist was on track to source and distribute healthy food to adults over 55 with chronic health conditions.
A partnership was launched with The Common Market, a nonprofit regional food distributor whose mission is “to connect communities with good food from sustainable family farms ... (and) strive to improve food security, farm viability, and community and ecological health.”
Through the federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and USDA Farmers to Families Food Box plan, The Common Market currently provides 200-plus free, fresh produce boxes for Norris Square residents each week. Community organizers set aside 20 to 30 boxes for Norris Square families with 4-H youth who participate in online out-of-school time activities and intensive prevention services programs for at-risk youth.
Produce box contents vary from week to week, based on availability. A recent selection featured kale, summer squash, corn, apples, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce mix and mushrooms, primarily grown on farms within 250 miles of Philadelphia.
These fresh produce boxes offer an array of colorful vegetables full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals and fiber.
They may also become a “mystery box” of ingredients for the 4-H Cooking Challenge project, where kids learn how to prepare simple, nutritionally sound meals with adult supervision and safe food handling practices.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Cooking Challenge concept was transformed into a virtual cooking day camp, a weeklong event attended online by 50 youths from across the state, and so enthusiastically received that a special interest spinoff 4-H club was created, along with a memorable introduction to healthy cooking skills for life.
Sometimes a produce box holds more than fresh vegetables and fruit.
It also contains the labor of Pennsylvania farmers and farm workers, truck drivers, relationship-building and evidence-based information from Penn State Extension staff, the passion of 4-H youth and leaders, a mission-focused community development group, the grit of a community organizer, locally grown fruit and vegetables from an innovative non-profit regional food distributor, and potential for growing healthy communities.
We are going to have to find a bigger box.