Donated fruit a godsend to new wave of immigrants

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It is just past 8 a.m., and the refugees are lining up on a narrow street in South Philadelphia.

Within the hour, almost 100 arrive. Men in woolen earflap beanies, lumberjack shirts, and hoodies. Women in shawls, sari pants, and sandals. Toddlers on tiptoes clutching their mothers' hands. All the faces, Asian.

Suddenly, a pickup laden with 800 pounds of fresh fruit rounds the corner, quieting the bustle. For a moment, the only sound is the rustle of white plastic bags waiting to be filled.

On Monday mornings in this neighborhood near Seventh and Emily Streets, the city's largest resettlement agency, Nationalities Service Center (NSC), gives away citrus and other fruit to a growing community of Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Burmese - the region's newest refugees.

The program, which began last summer with produce donated by a national company called the FruitGuys, plays a big role in the health and nutrition of dozens of refugee families. Typically, each family leaves with more than 20 pieces of fruit.

The weekly distributions are critical for the newcomers, who cannot afford pricey, perishable produce, said NSC staffer Adam Forbes, 25, who founded and runs the program for the nearly century-old nonprofit.

Last year, the Philadelphia area received 713 refugees from a total of 27 countries. Nearly three-quarters were from Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma), and Nepal.

The contingent from Bhutan, the largest group, began arriving three years ago. For the most part, they were ethnic Nepalese Hindus who had lived in Bhutan but fled that tiny South Asian country, or were forced out, after a 1992 change in citizenship laws. For almost two decades they lived in United Nations-run refugee camps in eastern Nepal before being relocated here.

Forbes said he realized last summer that they needed more help. He reached out through the listserv of the Philadelphia Urban Farm Network, an online discussion group. The FruitGuys, a 12-year-old, California-based company that prides itself on projects it calls "GoodWorks," stepped up.

"If you have been lucky enough to succeed in business," said company founder and CEO Chris Mittelstaedt, "you have a responsibility to . . . make the world a better place."

The FruitGuys is in the business of filling the standing orders of schools, homes, and offices. Customers ask for periodic deliveries of crates of mixed produce, usually weekly. Whatever is left over is available for donation. Forbes picks up the surplus from the company's Philadelphia warehouse and arranges it on the Emily Street sidewalk every Monday.

The food-assistance program is an outgrowth of "Growing Home Community," NSC's network of community gardens, created last year, and located on seven fenced lots nearby.

On more than 80 raised-bed plots, the refugees grow kale, Thai basil, bitter melon, and other vegetables used in their traditional cuisines.

They will begin planting for the coming season in about two weeks. But at the moment, with their gardens dormant, the fruit distributions are especially important, Forbes said.

Lining up the donated boxes of oranges, plums, apples, bananas, and even a few avocados last Monday, he was assisted by a half-dozen refugees who had volunteered to help distribute the produce. He showed them how many pieces of each fruit to dole out. Several were not yet fluent in English, so Forbes reached into the boxes and demonstrated.

"Two," he said, grabbing a pair of bananas.

"One," he said, scooping up a plum.

"Three," he said, holding a handful of clementines.

Nodding, the refugees repeated the numbers.

To keep the line moving smoothly, an NSC intern handed out numbered tickets. Even so, Forbes, who has learned to speak basic Nepali, had to remind latecomers to join the line at the back.

In an online posting about the project, Kim Jordan, eastern regional manager for the FruitGuys, said the community gardens and produce giveaway offer "gathering spaces" for "a vulnerable population," and "help them adjust to a new way of life."

Forbes said the weekly distribution also is a place to connect with the refugees, do some outreach, and assess their assimilation.

"Don't forget," he reminded one woman in Monday's fruit line. "Tomorrow, we have [donated] tickets, you are going to the Flower Show."

 


To view a video of the fruit giveaway, go to philly.com/freefruit


Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.