The 'world's largest fridge' to open in S.W. Philly

The new Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market - the food distribution center, as it's called - on Essington Avenue. Below, a display of produce there, which comes from near and far. John Vena, of the market's board, says those who push for farmers markets in city neighborhoods "don't seem to realize we sell local produce too."
The new Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market - the food distribution center, as it's called - on Essington Avenue. Below, a display of produce there, which comes from near and far. John Vena, of the market's board, says those who push for farmers markets in city neighborhoods "don't seem to realize we sell local produce too."

The new food distribution center - 20 acres under one roof - will sell food grown locally and around the globe.

Posted: April 07, 2011

Meet John Vena. At 58, he is the third John Vena in the family produce business, but he doesn't use stuffy suffixes like Junior or the Third.

The first John Vena started in 1919 selling apples and oranges on Dock Street. He didn't live long enough to see the produce vendors moved from there in 1959 and into a wholesale produce market in an industrial park south of Packer Avenue that most Philadelphians would come to call the food distribution center.

No doubt, though, that first John Vena would be proud to see his namesake serve on the board of directors of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market (the food distribution center's formal name), which is to move into new digs on Essington Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia about May 1. (The opening, expected this week, was delayed because of a refrigeration problem.)

You won't need a club card to shop here, as long as you're buying by the case.

Built with $218 million in private and public funds, the center houses 20 acres under one roof, said Sonny DiCrecchio, the executive director.

It has nearly 30 vendors who pay monthly rent for 68 stalls, each with independent access to the outside and control of its own refrigeration. So pineapples can be brought in from ship to stall without ever breaking what's called "the cold chain." (Refrigerated trucks back into the stalls to unload.) With a 2,800-ton refrigeration system, this place has enough freon to warrant its nickname: the world's largest refrigerator.

"There is nothing like this anywhere on the planet," Vena said at a ribbon-cutting at the end of March. Mayor Nutter joked that he's "still checking," on a couple of continents to see if Vena's claim is entirely accurate.

Vena, who joined the family business in 1976 after a career in advertising, now has his son Daniel working with him, making it a five-generation family-owned business.

They sell produce grown around the globe and close to home in Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware.

But Vena says he's concerned about initiatives that promote locally grown produce without mentioning the food distribution center.

"Those programs may be well-intentioned, and I know it's hard to get a supermarket to invest in a blighted area," Vena says, referring to the push for farmers markets in certain city neighborhoods. "But they don't seem to realize we sell local produce too."

He's right that for a culture that allowed itself to lose its vital connection to the earth, we've certainly come back with a passion.

In the last five or so years, public interest in eating local produce and knowing the growers has soared. And each initiative seems to spawn another.

The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., for example, sponsors Philly Homegrown, a marketing campaign focused on eating and buying locally; Farm-to-City aims to unite communities and farmers; and the Common Market in Strawberry Mansion is a produce distribution center that supplies universities, hospitals, and other institutions with locally grown food.

In addition, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which works closely with the William Penn Foundation, recently gave $480,000 in grants to farming projects within 100 miles of the city.

"There is a growing awareness of the connection between what we eat and our health," says Alison Hastings, the Planning Commission's point person on sustainability.

"And there's a growing realization that food is a large part of our economy. Local agriculture, the wholesale produce market, and the Port of Philadelphia go hand in hand. We need them all."

"The port and the wholesale market," Hastings says, "allow us to have fresh produce year-round."

Many would say the travel miles are not worth the carbon emissions. Others are grateful to have Tarocco blood oranges imported from Sicily or fiddlehead ferns flown in from the Northwest in early April.

Meanwhile, farmers markets are also changing people's habits. Vena says he sees fewer neighbors banding together to buy in bulk.

"For a long time, we'd see 10 or 12 neighbors get together to shop here. We see less of that now," he says.

And at the same time, some local chefs have shifted their practices in ways that affect the food distribution center's business.

In high-end, high-profile restaurants, customers have come to expect to find information about the grower in descriptions of each and every dish. And some restaurants are serving tasting menus built in part around local ingredients.

"We can get heirloom tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, and all kinds of basil," Vena says.

But it must be hard to come across as a friendly farmer in the world's biggest refrigerator.

Correction: A refrigeration problem will delay the opening of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market until May 1 at the earliest, according to vendor David Levin of M. Levin & Co.


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

 

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