Sweet Potatoes For A Farm Market Growing In Tasker Homes, It Was Time For Another First Thanksgiving

Posted: November 25, 1993

It is two days before Thanksgiving and the sun is so hot and the sky so mid-summer blue that it doesn't seem like November. In a way, it doesn't seem like 31st and Tasker, either. The weather has a way of painting over the bruises - the dumpsters spilling their guts, the windows filled with plywood.

And so, on this particular Tuesday, it is not hard to imagine the fondest

dream of the intrepid bunch that is setting up a curbside farmers market here - their 8th weekly outing in what they hope will result, in time, in 10 such fresh-produce markets in housing projects throughout Philadelphia.

The next stop, if this one in Tasker Homes works out, is Queen Lane in Germantown. And who knows where it will end - this Community Farmers Market Program thatwould bring the best of Lancaster County and, in the case of bananas, we suppose, Costa Rica or some such place, to the very heart of projects where getting inexpensive, high-quality, nutritious fruits and vegetables can be a losing struggle.

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There is on this Tuesday, a spirited, if still-makeshift quality about the operation. Sandy Sherman, who runs the pilot effort for the non-profit Reading Terminal Farmers' Market Trust, rolls up in her U-Haul van at about noon. In short order, Tasker residents Vernelle Teagle and LaVerne Brown are hanging scales, bagging grapes and setting out the take-a-number box. There was some neighborhood grumping, one says, about the market not opening soon enough, which the marketeers found rather complimentary.

This is no coffee-scented Chestnut Hill farmer's market. Nor does it resemble the setup in Ardmore, where the filets of beef lap up against counters stuffed with muffins the size of Ali's fist. No, it's a humble, curbside event - cardboard cartons of sweet potatoes and tangerines strung out on a long table, not unlike the one in those renderings of the Pilgrims and Squanto et al.

The object is as simple as the setting. From the perspective of the out- county farm, it is one more way to create permanent farmer-to-consumer outlets, one of the goals of a mouthful called the Regional Infrastructure for Sustainable Agriculture, which aims to create exactly what its name says. From the perspective of the grand, old Reading Market, it adds the dimension of social outreach, even as the century-old farm market is figuring ways to live profitably, joined at the hip to the new Convention Center. And not least, for front-line troops, it's a direct, doable, hands-on way to get healthy, fresh foods straight into neighborhoods where trips to the supermarket can be difficult - and paying top dollar tougher still.

With that in mind, the prices are kept rock-bottom. Roughly, the Trust's market charges halfway between the cost asked by suppliers such as the Leola Produce Auction and merchant markups. On this Tuesday, big, leafy greens - mustard, collard, turnip or kale - were going (quick!) for 60 cents a pound; Pennsylvania cabbages, four for a dollar. "Economical-wise," says LaVerne Brown, it's a deal: You save on transportation, you save on time, and you get far fresher food.

Indeed, there seemed to be a pent-up demand. In its first week, the market sold out in two hours. Sandy Sherman doubled her haul the next week - and sold out again. Since then, the number of customers has varied between 80 and 50, with the volume going down toward the end of the month when welfare checks run low and other bills come due.

No one is predicting the project will be soon be self-sufficient, though a like-minded effort in Toronto has steadily cut losses. The Trust executive director, R. Duane Perry, says with about $100,000 it could buy a "market truck." A moveable market could serve 10 low-income locations - two each day of the week - minimizing waste, upping volume and reducing the subsidy.

But Ms. Sherman is already noticing small triumphs. Grade-schoolers, she says, are pooling pocket change on their way home to buy an apple or banana or two.

Which is the project's real bottom line - giving the bountiful harvest of Pennsylvania's farmlands a new set of fans, hooked on nutrition.

In that heroic effort, the modest Tasker beachhead was looking a bit more secure on this particular Tuesday. Let us - for that - give thanks.

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