They lost their jobs, but they're helping feed others

Posted 5/7/20

Nicholas Freeman, co-founder of Mt. Airy Groceries, prepares food orders to be delivered to the homeless and people who lost their jobs to the pandemic. (Photo by Jessica Rights) By Stacia Friedman …

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They lost their jobs, but they're helping feed others

Posted
Nicholas Freeman, co-founder of Mt. Airy Groceries, prepares food orders to be delivered to the homeless and people who lost their jobs to the pandemic. (Photo by Jessica Rights)

By Stacia Friedman

Mt. Airy Groceries is not a store or food co-op. It is a random act of kindness that turned into a community service. Every box of fresh produce they sell puts food on the table of needy families. Here’s how it started just a few weeks ago.

Jessica Rights, 43, and her husband Nicholas Freeman, 34, who both lost their jobs with a local caterer because of the pandemic, asked their friend George Drakopoulos, owner of Malelani Café, 6734 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, to pick up food for them and their neighbors at the wholesale food distribution center where George shops for his restaurant.

“We gave him a few hundred dollars and a small fee for himself,” said Rights. “After he came back, we realized that we had a huge amount of excess food. There were literally hundreds of pounds of produce we didn’t need.”

They knew that during the pandemic many in their Mt. Airy neighborhood had waited almost three weeks for groceries and fresh produce to be delivered. “We were especially concerned for those who were ill or disabled. Many were wholly reliant on a system that was unable to serve them,” said Rights. “We decided to distribute our excess produce at cost to whoever needed it. I posted a message on Nextdoor.com, and the response was huge.”

For the first two weeks, Drakopoulos would go shopping in the mornings and drop off food on Rights’ porch. “Nick and I would furiously separate produce into boxes,” said Rights, “and call people for safe pick-up when we were done.”

Rachel Falcove of Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network (PIHN), based in Mt. Airy, contacted Rights and inquired about her program. “Interfaith feeds the elderly, sick, displaced and homeless,” said Rights. “We were elated to find someone who could directly benefit from our efforts. So Rachel had her volunteers pick up food boxes, at first from our house and now from Malelani Café, which George has donated as a fulfillment center.”

“On Tuesdays and Thursdays we sell the boxes for $25,” said Drakopoulos, “and because of that and some donations, we are able to prepare 30 of those boxes for charity filled with fresh produce, vegetables, eggs, rice, toilet paper, etc. And Rachel makes sure the food gets to the people who need it the most.”

Since their founding in 1991, PIHN has offered a safe and child-friendly alternative to public shelter settings, allowing families to remain intact. “Our hospitality network is comprised of 1,200 caring volunteers, 30 congregations, concerned citizens of the community, community businesses and institutions, and we are growing!” said Falcove.

Mt. Airy Groceries now exclusively works with PIHN. “Their need is so great and growing,” said Rights, “that they have begun to call me mid-week for pickups and deliveries. We are going to restructure to provide them more donation days.”

Working with food comes naturally to Rights and her husband. Both worked for Catering By Design, where Freeman was operations manager and Rights was a waitress before the pandemic arrived.

Their effort, which started as a neighborly favor, now sells 20 to 40 boxes per fulfillment day. “Vegan boxes have a large package of tofu as their protein, and non-vegan boxes have eggs and a form of dairy as protein,” said Rights. “To boost revenue, we are now selling masks, gloves and charging for delivery.” The good news? Donations have increased proportionally to sales. So has the labor. “I have worked 12 to 16-hour days since we started,” said Rights.

“Nick and George and I are putting out an S.O.S. to other businesses in our community,” said Rights. “If you have an unused storefront, please consider copying this model until the need is no longer there. We could teach you in a few hours how to turn your empty space into a profitable lifeline for your neighbors in need.”

Rights and Freeman are also very involved in the local farming and organic food movement. “Nick and I grow our own food and belong to community gardens,” said Rights. “Every year I start thousands of plants from seed and donate them to food programs. We believe very strongly that economics and class should not determine someone’s access to fresh food.”

For more information, contact MountAiryGroceries.com or 215-805-8796.

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