October 21, 2020
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In many North Philadelphia neighborhoods, accessing fresh fruits and vegetables is a struggle. But by harnessing a community’s collective buying power, one local nonprofit had a solution that has not been forgotten.

“I have been involved with different community projects, but the Food Buying Club really focused on empowering residents in a way I haven’t seen before,” says Misha Rodriguez, special projects coordinator at Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha (APM).

The club offered residents the opportunity to pool resources and buy produce in bulk directly from a wholesale market at a reduced price.

“Using that model, we were able to create an organized structure so that anyone could look at an order sheet, fill out how many pounds of produce they wanted and get them cheaper,” Rodriguez says. “Because we were eliminating the middleman of a supermarket, there was no upcharge in it.”

But there were downsides. Too many pain points and an unsustainable model ended the program in 2017. Now, with help from a team of Fox MBA students and a new eight-member advisory council, it’s looking like the club could return as early as spring 2021.

The club started with a handful of families choosing and ordering produce every two weeks, paying in cash and coming to an APM location for pick up.

“It became very evident that there was a real need in the community for fresh quality, affordable produce and the club just grew exponentially,” Rodriguez says. “We went from working with five to eight families at the beginning, to three years later, working with an outreach list of 800 contacts.”

That volume became too much for a club that relied largely on volunteers and limited staff resources. There were other concerns too, including the use of personal vehicles, the risks associated with running a cash-only business and the absence of technology supporting all phases of the effort.

“The decision to end the program was made because APM could no longer justify the operation cost, the labor costs that were going in and the increased risk that was going out of operating a club of that size,” she says. 

Advisory council member Luz Crespo says there was also another issue.

“We were trying so hard to meet the community’s needs that we kept the prices extremely low which made it impossible to balance the expenses.”

While staff and volunteers understood the reasons for the shutdown, they didn’t walk away.

“We would constantly hear from residents: ‘We need fresh fruits and vegetables, what’s going on with the Food Buying Club?’ We wanted to figure out how to make this work,” Rodriguez says.

Grant funding was secured, but this time, instead of restarting with the same pain points, a framework began. APM created the advisory council and hired Fox Management Consulting (FMC), the MBA capstone course where students work with faculty and business executives to solve a business problem.

“The advisory council is the heart of the project,” Rodriguez says, adding that the council worked closely with the students to ensure solutions were relevant and maintained the community’s vision for the club to offer quality, affordability and choice.

“The staff had some success with the Food Buying Club, but to their detriment,” says FMC project executive Shauna Yeldell, who worked with the students. “While they recognized that it was much needed and their residents asked for it, they needed our help in bringing the club back in a sustainable and scalable way.”

MBA students Eleni Christoforidou, Mike Doughty, Grace Miller, Josh Waimberg and Steve Yarsinsky quickly got to work, organizing focus groups and interviewing staff, volunteers and customers of the club. They met distributors and toured South Philadelphia’s wholesale market for insights and pricing. They explored available technology including software for online ordering and payment methods, and analyzed how similar clubs operated.

“The biggest challenge was logistics,” Christoforidou says. “The club had volunteers using personal vehicles or renting a truck and going to the wholesale market weekly, getting produce and loading it on the truck. We looked at options such as partnering with another organization that had its own vehicles or working with a distributor, not just a wholesaler, who would purchase produce and drop it off where we wanted it to go.”

When the semester ended, APM had what it needed.

“Besides having the consultants run through our different pain points and vet the entire plan, it was really important to have their expertise in presenting the plan to different stakeholders,  whether it was funders or APM executive staff,” Rodriguez says. “It showed them that not only do we believe in this program, but this is how it is going to work.”

Advisory council member Melinda Martinez couldn’t be happier about its anticipated return.

“It became just not about Food Buyers Club,” Martinez says. “It became helping residents with other services that APM could provide or send them for referrals to other organizations.

“I think we are at a good point and I’m excited.”

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