Several years back Melinda Martínez received a knock on her door at her home in North Philly. It was Bridget Palombo, then the director for community economic development for the local community organization Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (Puerto Ricans on the Move), asking about her grocery store habits.
“She asked me where I bought my fruits and vegetables and what I thought about cost and quality,” recalls Martínez. She and other neighbors expressed concern over the lack of availability of affordable, nutritious foods. So in 2014 Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha — known as APM — piloted a community-based Food Buying Club, a model where small groups of people buy food in bulk directly from a distributor or wholesale market in order to get much lower prices for a variety of fresh produce.
Martínez joined the club with her family early on; she eventually became an APM “Community Connector” to recruit new members and handle customer service. The club was popular - serving 100 families at a time - but APM ended the program in 2017 due to limited funding and capacity. This summer, it is relaunching with a focus on fiscal sustainability and community decision making, with Martínez and other early Food Buying Club members serving as advisors to inform the relaunch.
APM was founded in North Philly in 1970 to support the influx of Latino residents cut off from basic social services. Decades later, Palombo’s door knocking campaign revealed that the nonprofit could serve a larger role in supporting fresh food access.
Misha Rodriguez, APM’s special projects coordinator, notes that the organization’s solution of a Food Buying Club didn’t take long to catch on. After starting with a “handful of families” the organization grew its outreach list to over 800 residents in three years. (The list included community members who placed orders every cycle, who participated occasionally and people interested in receiving the club’s communications and order sheets.)
The model allowed residents — who didn’t have to fulfill any income requirements, provide proof of residency or pay membership fees — to collectively buy food in bulk at wholesale prices from the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Volunteer distributors shared order sheets with the community so APM could compile a large bulk order every two weeks. The order was sent to suppliers at the produce market, picked up by APM in a rented U-Haul and taken to a local community room for pickups. Members of the club paid in cash, saving up to 75 percent on the cost of fresh, high quality produce.
In its pilot year, the average food order was $24 for approximately a case of fresh produce — in a retail supermarket the same order would cost $75. When word got out on pricing more residents joined. APM also used its team of Community Connectors, essentially paid community ambassadors, who expanded outreach to places like recreation and senior centers.
In the beginning members mostly asked for fruit due to the savings, but as the club grew they requested items like onions, potatoes, carrots and ethnic products. APM developed a “hub and spoke” model, where staff and volunteers sorted and packed produce into individual orders then distributed to six satellite-spoke sites throughout North Philly. “We would distribute at rec centers where families were exiting programming so they didn’t have to go out of their way to do this,” Rodriguez says.
(Photo courtesy APM)
In three years the club distributed over 62,000 pounds of fresh produce, employing five residents part-time. But APM struggled to meet the increasing demand. “We didn’t have the capacity built in to support that growth,” Rodriguez says. “At that point we weren’t running off grant funding … the money that went in was going directly to buying produce but wasn’t supporting staff time.”
It was a painful decision to end the buying club in 2017. Two years later, APM received funding from the Philadelphia Food Justice Initiative to go back to the drawing board and relaunch. APM knew it had to relaunch in a more sustainable way. And, says Rodriguez, “If we’re re-launching, is there a way there’s more shared decision making with community members?”
That year, the nonprofit formed an eight-person advisory council with members of the Food Buying Club, including Martínez and her two teenage children.
Over two years, the council met at least once a month to discuss ways to improve the club. “We’re really getting into the nooks and crannies of the Food Buying Club … how to continue it, what we should change or keep,” says Martínez. (Martínez is now a staff member with APM’s Financial Opportunity Center and will support the club’s customers with wider financial resources.)
In the first year, the council and APM collaborated with business consultants from the Fox Business School at Temple University to develop a relaunch roadmap. In the second year, the group worked with the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance to build in food justice and community ownership elements.
The Food Buying Club will launch this summer with a number of operational changes. To make ordering more user friendly, the advisory committee aims to add an online payment option that accepts credit cards. After business consultants identified the inefficiency of renting a U-Haul each week to pick up the order, APM is seeking a partnership with a wholesaler who will deliver. APM also secured enough funding through the Philadelphia Food Justice Initiative to hire a part-time employee to handle operations.
Work with the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance and the advisory council has set the groundwork for community buy-in and decision making, says Rodriguez. “We’re building a foundation that’s giving community members a space to lead and be self-reliant,” she says. “If APM is no longer here in three years, does that mean the Food Buying Club is no longer in the community? This relaunch is to make sure the community will have tools to sustain, relaunch or start their own food buying club.”
The club will start with one central site and will look to expand across North Philadelphia. Expansion seems likely, with Community Connectors still assisting with outreach and an existing customer base eager to re-join. “Food Buying Club is still on everyone’s mind and everyone’s heart,” notes Martínez. “It was sad when we had to stop this, but in a way we never stopped working.”