How Francisville residents work together to feed their own neighborhood

Residents choose from the produce dropped off by North Philadelphia residents Michael Jarman and Wiley Cunningham at 17th and Francis streets on Nov. 3. Cunningham started the food distribution when he moved to Francisville in the early 2000s.

Michael Jarman’s kitchen has always been a place where people gather.

His grandmother baked cakes for extra income and always invited customers into his childhood home in Francisville to sample the product. While working as a chef in Philadelphia for 45 years, he often invited family and friends over for meals. Now, the retired 62-year-old keeps busy by volunteering for a weekly, community-run food distribution in Francisville.

Neighborhood resident Wiley Cunningham started the food distribution 11 years ago to “connect with neighbors,” he said.

“It’s the difference between bringing us all together and it being like a charity relationship, which is often patronizing,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, let’s all do this together to help ourselves.’ That’s the difference that I think is really important.”

Every Friday at 7 a.m., Cunningham and Jarman drive to Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market in Southwest Philadelphia to pick up cases of fresh produce to distribute in the neighborhood.

How much they collect depends on what vendors at the wholesale produce market can donate, Jarman said. One morning earlier this month, they brought a bounty of potatoes, snap peas, peppers, broccoli, clementines, apples and bananas back to the neighborhood.

David Braine, an employee for the food company Ryeco, which sells goods at the wholesale produce market, gives cases of produce to Jarman every week.

“It’s easy for us to give stuff away, but it’s tough to give up your time,” Braine said. “We’re just trying to take care of these people. Really, they’re the ones giving up a lot.”

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Michael Jarman pushes a cart of produce donated from vendors at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market in Southwest Philadelphia.

In North Philadelphia, one in four households struggles with hunger, according to research by Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and a professor of health management and policy at School of Public Health at Drexel University.

Kamaryn Norris, a project coordinator at The Food Trust, a Philadelphia organization that works to increase access to fresh produce, said corner stores are often the only places in Francisville where residents can buy groceries, and they don’t sell a lot of fresh food.

Food distributions like Cunningham’s, she added, can “revitalize communities.”

When the truck pulls up to 17th and Francis Streets, residents are waiting on the corner to help unload the produce and lay it out so residents can pick whatever they like. Some slip Cunningham a couple bucks for gas and parking at the wholesale produce market. If there’s leftover produce, residents drop off the surplus at charities and churches across the city.

About a dozen people regularly come to the food drop-off, and their ages vary between middle-aged and elderly. Some bring kids and others attend with feeding family members at home in mind.

Francisville resident Terry Johnson started coming nine years ago. She said there’s “no questions asked,” and people can take whatever they need.

She likes to make vegetable stir fry or an apple cake for a treat, and she’ll share what she makes to help keep “the neighborhood nice and healthy.”

“If I didn’t have them, I would go without” fresh produce, said Johnson, 61.

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Francisville resident Patricia Gordon takes potatoes from the weekly food distribution at 17th and Francis Streets.

Sometimes residents don’t know how to prepare the particular fruits and vegetables offered, so Jarman teaches them in his Strawberry Mansion home.

“A lot of my childhood and growing was spent sitting at a kitchen table, watching and learning from my grandmother and mother,” said Jarman, who started volunteering with the food distribution five years ago. “I don’t mind passing that on.”

Food access points, whether a corner store or a supermarket, are anchors for a community, said Norris, who works on the Food Trust’s National Campaign for Healthy Food Access. “It’s where people can come together and get food for their family. It’s important for them to exist.”

In 2003, Cunningham ran a similar food distribution in West Philadelphia while squatting in an abandoned home at 41st and Lancaster Streets. He started the Francisville food distribution when he settled in that neighborhood.

The California native also operated a soup kitchen out of his Bay Area home in collaboration with the organization Food Not Bombs, which has a Philadelphia chapter, before he left there in 2005.

“Everyone needs to eat,” Cunningham said. “It’s, like, a little bit of work, and a lot of people benefit. … I don’t think it should be a question if people should have access to fresh food.”

Editor’s Note: This story was revised to correct the location of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. It is in Southwest Philadelphia, not West Philadelphia.