Fresh For All: Einstein Hosts Free Food Distribution Program
Imagine a place where people can go to pick up farm-fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables—for free. And not just any people, but those who might not otherwise be able to purchase them.
One such place? The Fresh for All free food program on West Tabor Road at Park Avenue in North Philadelphia, directly across from the Tabor Road entrance to Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. The program is operated by Einstein Philadelphia in conjunction with local hunger relief organization Philabundance. The site operates every Thursday, opening at 10 a.m. Everyone is welcome, no ID is required, and taking part doesn’t affect any government benefits people might be receiving. The program launched in late March.
Those who joined the fast-moving line one recent Thursday received about 25 pounds of fresh produce each, including potatoes, peppers, apples, sweet potatoes, onions, and on this day, a carton of milk. They loaded the produce and milk into tote bags, wheeled carts, baby carriages, or a large Fresh for All bag being handed out by volunteers. The volunteers also distributed flyers with lists of other food resources in the area. Adding to the atmosphere was a boom box playing a mix of vintage rock hits mixed in with a bit of funk.
One woman, walking away with a friend with a tote bag full to the top with produce, expressed her enthusiasm: “Man, we are good.”
The line stretched for about a block. It was a drizzly day, so people huddled under umbrellas as they awaited their turn.
Among the volunteers handing out food behind the tables this day were Ken Levitan, Chief Administrative Officer, Einstein Healthcare Network; Ruth Lefton, MHA, President and Chief Operating Officer, Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia, Einstein Medical Center Elkins Park, MossRehab, Willowcrest and Center One; Dixieanne James, Vice President, Strategic Planning and Business Development, and a Vice Chair of the Philabundance board; Rebecca Hunt Tantala, Director of Grants, Foundations & Contracts; and pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine specialist Jean G. Ford, MD, Paul J. Johnson Chair of the Department of Medicine.
Helping keep the line in order and moving along was Jose Vargas, field program coordinator for Philabundance. “Word goes out,” he says. “You see people in line calling other people to come down. We have people here who have such a dire need that they go to multiple sites. There are so many different situations here in the line. You see the gratitude people have.”
Einstein established the market as a way to respond to an often-neglected aspect of good health—good nutrition.
Sometimes, you can get very emotional. Until you see it, you don’t realize the need.
“Einstein noticed that there is a large number of people in our community who are suffering with issues related to food insecurity,” says Cortney Reed, grants manager in Einstein’s Government Relations Department. “They were having issues getting fresh fruits and vegetables. We do food insecurity screenings to see who, within the last 30 days, had issues receiving a meal, or who think they’ll have issues receiving meals. Also, there is data in Philadelphia that shows about 60,000 kids are food insecure. Overall, almost 400,000 people in Philadelphia are food insecure.”
Whether or not people have access to nourishing food has a direct bearing on their health, Reed says. For people with diabetes, high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease, she says, “if you are not eating the proper fruits and vegetables, you’re not going to get healthier.”
In the absence of healthy food, people are relying on cheaper food that is filling and rich in calories, but far less nutritious, Reed adds.
Although Einstein’s relationship with Philabundance is new, she says, the need has always been there. Einstein has been there, too, responding to the need.
“For more than 15 years, we’ve had a nutrition program—the ‘Families Understanding Nutrition or FUN’ program—that was put through many schools in Philadelphia,” Reed says. “The program introduces children to different fruits and vegetables. It gives information to families, as well.”
FUN representatives visit the Fresh for All free food distribution, she adds, to offer tastings for some of the fruits and vegetables. They’ve also provided books for the kids who are in line throughout the summer months.
Einstein’s Fresh for All has served more than 4,000 people since it began—an average of 223 people every week. The first week, there were 156. In the busiest week, 255 people lined up for fresh produce. So far, 70,800 pounds of food have been distributed.
Jessica Wyckoff, Philabundance manager of Community Food Programs, says the majority of the produce is donated. Each week, Philabundance offers a whopping 4,500 pounds of produce at the Einstein Philadelphia site. “We try to do a mix of fruit and vegetables—it’s whatever is in our warehouses.”
Philabundance tries to have between 10 and 15 volunteers weekly.
Initially, she says, Philabundance spread the word about the Einstein site to local food pantries and social service agencies, among others. After that, she says, the news generally got out by word of mouth. Additionally, because the Einstein site is so close to SEPTA’s Olney Transportation Center, “we see a lot of people walking up.”
What makes this Philabundance site unusual, Wyckoff adds, is that “This is the first direct partnership with a healthcare institution.”
Reed, for her part, finds the relationship extremely fulfilling.
“Sometimes,” she says, “you can get very emotional. Until you see it, you don’t realize the need. It’s putting a face to numbers. People appreciate it when you know their names, when you remember something about their family, when you ask them how their day was. You greet them with a smile. You tell them to have a good weekend. And they are very, very appreciative.”