Which Comes First? The Chicken or the Egg? Supply or Demand?

September 26, 2011

By Mary Seton Corboy and Matthew Brener, Greensgrow Farm
with Alison Hastings, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission

Part 1

It was only last year that Greensgrow, a Philadelphia-based urban farm and food hub, was invited by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs to a meeting to discuss recreating or replicating its successful urban farm in Camden – one of a number of “food deserts” in New Jersey.

Greensgrow was intrigued, but also wary of taking on such a challenge during a time when organizations were (are) already feeling financially strained in this new economy.

Greensgrow has built a reputation as a “can-do” (and often “seat-of-the-pants”) organization that has balanced the altruistic goals of a nonprofit with the innovation of a small independent business. The idea of creating another successful urban farm and food hub over night might appear compelling. But would it be a wise use of resources? After all, Greensgrow, based in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, took 13 years to develop… and did Camden really need it?

Greensgrow decided to spend some time looking at Camden beyond the standard review of economic and demographic statistics. They began by working with The Reinvestment Fund to examine the demographic data as well as connect with a wide range of social service and community organizations with long histories and established track records of working in Camden. DCA also funded a consultant-led study to better understand the food retail landscape in Camden. Where do people get food in a food desert? From nearby supermarkets, bodegas, emergency relief organizations, lots of places. And Greensgrow just spent time hanging out in Camden, meeting people, watching traffic on the streets, learning about more organizations and programs.

Within a few months, Greensgrow turned an idealistic three-year plan to start an urban farm in Camden completely on its head. Instead of building a new farm on a vacant or underutilized site, requiring significant site improvements (water hook-ups, construction of outbuildings, and more) and around-the-clock staff, they decided to do their own “market analysis” in real, very real time. With lots of encouragement and support from DCA and others, including Subaru (a long-time corporate sponsor of Greensgrow and a neighbor to Camden, with its US headquarters in Cherry Hill, NJ, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and the Campbell Soup Childhood Obesity and Hunger Program, the Greensgrow Camden Neighborhood Mobile Markets began in June 2011.

Images courtesy of R. Kennedy for Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation

Greensgrow Camden is a step back in time, when “hucksters,” independent middle men, drove out to farms and picked up produce and then sold it to friends, family, neighbors, and local businesses. An old bread truck got a spring cleaning and bright new Greensgrow graphics. Special shelves were installed inside and outside of the truck. A canopy was attached to provide shade for customers and staff. Greensgrow hired two Camden County residents, one Spanish-speaking, to help with customer service. They made a conscious decision to carry fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers as well as fruits and vegetables not available locally, such as avocados and limes.

Greensgrow also put great effort into pricing the fresh produce to be competitive with other sources of fresh food in the area. Further, as the federal food assistance usage is so high in Camden, Greensgrow accepts EBT cards (food stamps) as well as the WIC and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutritional program (FMNP) coupons

Greensgrow’s foremost ally in Camden is the Camden Area Health Education Center (AHEC), a leader in providing social services and health services to the people of Camden for over 30 years. AHEC has also founded and operated the Camden City Community Farmers Markets that have provided fresh, locally grown produce to Camden for the last 12 years. AHEC pioneered providing health and social services at farmers’ markets and are working with Greensgrow to sponsor similar educational and medical services at the mobile markets as well. Greensgrow also formed partnerships with community-based organizations, including Camden’s religious institutions, in each of the four neighborhood service areas where they are operating this season.

Ready, set, go! Right? Now that fresh, affordable, (and local!) food is available practically at residents’ doorsteps, Greensgrow’s mobile farmers market would be flooded with customers. Right?

No. Sales are slow.

To be continued on Wednesday…