Outside Frankford Memorial United Methodist Church, people crowded together in chilly conditions on a recent Saturday morning.
Every week, families gather here, some as early as 8:30 a.m., more than an hour before the Frankford Farmers Market opens. Many have bags in hand, ready to fill them with fresh produce grown across the river at farms in New Jersey.
Unlike most farmers markets, the food is free.
Anyone on Social Security or any type of public assistance doesn’t need to bring their wallet. A parent whose child receives free school lunches also qualifies to shop.
Most weeks, Beverly Zinn rolls up with her “Cadillac” — that’s what she calls her shopping cart. She, like many of the market’s other patrons, doesn’t have a car, and she said food is expensive at nearby stores.
“It helps to subsidize my income,” Zinn said. “Any food that comes in is a blessing.”
The Frankford Farmers Market is a collaboration between Frankford Memorial and By Grace Alone Church, both of which use the same building.
Produce, which ranges from zucchini, pears and corn to kale, squash and potatoes, is donated by America’s Grow-a-Row, a nonprofit that harvests food from 300 acres spread across three farms it owns in central and northern Jersey. A small portion of the food is gleaned from nearby orchards and grocery stores.
Volunteers, who come from both churches, say they never know exactly what types of produce will show up.
From mid-July to early November, the market is held every Saturday at 10 a.m. in church’s yard at 1300 Dyre St. This is the market’s third year.
Organizers say an average of 50 people show up, and they estimate hundreds of people are fed each week by the fruit and vegetables provided at the market.
“It has been a real godsend for the neighborhood, and they look forward to it,” said Sandy Heiser, a member of Frankford Memorial who volunteers at the market. “They keep coming back.”
Grow-a-Row’s Free Farm Market program is aimed at getting healthy, fresh foods into food deserts, or areas that lack access to affordable produce.
In Frankford, some residents, especially those without a car, say they were left with few options after a grocery store at Frankford Avenue and Pratt Street closed in recent years.
Poverty in the area is also high. In the 19124 ZIP code, which includes Frankford, Northwood, Summerdale, Juniata and parts of Crescentville and Wissinoming, about 35 percent of people live in poverty — nearly 10 percentage points higher than the citywide rate.
In parts of Frankford, the poverty rate tops 45 percent, among the highest in the city, according to a PEW report released in April. The federal poverty level for 2019 is $21,330 for a family of three.
Julie Rusin, programming director at Grow-a-Row, said fruits and vegetables often fall by the wayside when budgets are tight and families have to choose between rent, transportation, food and other necessities.
“This is like a blessing. This helps a lot of people,” said Bernadette, a Frankford resident. “If I don’t need it, I won’t take it.”
Grow-a-Row distributes 1.5 million pounds of free produce each growing season, Rusin said. The organization started in 2002 after its founder, Chip Paillex, and his daughter donated fruits and vegetables they grew on a small plot to a local food pantry in need of produce.
Volunteers help grow and harvest the crops, and they also drive the produce to various distribution points.
Grow-a-Row supplies free farmers markets in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Rusin said the Frankford market is unique in how it engages with the community and meets its needs.
“They really, I think, bring their own culture and excitement and community to the market,” she said. “It’s a really fantastic partnership.”
In addition to a produce stand, the market features what organizers call a “resource table,” with mostly new clothes, shoes and other household items. There is also an area with children’s books and a “prayer table,” where residents can talk over their concerns with someone from By Grace Alone.
Nothing comes with a price tag.
“It’s a lot more than just produce that we do,” said Sheldon Crosbie, the market’s managing coordinator. “It actually brings the community together.”
“It grows. Every year it gets better,” he added. “We’re very proud of what we do here, and we take it very seriously.”
Crosbie said any leftover food is taken to local homeless shelters.
Organizers say they anticipate running the market through Saturday, Nov. 9, but that will depend on weather and harvest conditions. Anyone who wants to preregister or see if they qualify can call 215-288-9800. ••
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.