Produce Central – A Civic Leader’s Pivotal Role in Improving a Community

Photo By ‘woodallarnett’ [insta]

It’s a hot and humid Thursday afternoon in late summer. A store owner sits outside his place of business, greeting people by name as they walk by. Within minutes a large truck pulls up to the curb and parks. The driver gets out, opens up the back of the vehicle, and store employees and volunteers immediately appear to help unload what he is hauling.

An unmistakable aroma of fresh fruit and vegetables is the first thing to greet them. This delivery includes pears, lettuce, and avocados, just to name a few of the assortment of produce destined to be given to this community free of charge. ‘Where is this taking place?’ you may be curious to know. I’m talking about West Philadelphia, commonly known as West Philly. The gentleman at the center of all of this is the aforementioned proprietor who had been chatting with passersby.

His name is Arnett Woodall.

On any given Monday, Thursday or Saturday afternoon, the same scenario described above will take place. The supplier of this excess produce is Whole Foods. For the past six years, Mr. Woodall has been working with this supermarket delivering tons of food to a community in need. More recently another supplier of produce has been added. “We started working over the past four months with a local farm called ‘Food Works’,” Mr. Woodall informed me. 

 Mr. Woodall, along with his son Devante, are co-owners of West Phillie Produce, located in West Philadelphia. Their store has become the distribution center for the excess produce, much of which would have become food waste. There has been a lot of talk of late regarding food repurposing and wasted food. Mr. Woodall and his son have been talking the talk and walking the walk for many years. So today, as boxes of produce are unloaded and brought into the store, they will be distributed to the people in town; in-person and delivered by volunteers to other community members. While I was speaking on the phone with Mr. Woodall, he excused himself for a moment to call someone’s attention to some peppers that had just arrived in the store. “Look at those peppers over there; they look nice,” he states. I can also hear him suggest what to box up to bring to those who can’t come by to pick up the food.

During the same telephone conversation, Mr. Woodall told me he takes a multigenerational approach to address community needs. “Say an older person develops Carpal Tunnel and has difficulty cutting their fruit and vegetables; we offer a service called ‘Slice and Dice.’ Someone can buy their produce from us, and we will cut it up for them.”

Community Solutions

West Phillie Produce is so much more than just a local store. It’s a community hub. Drawing on his own experiences growing up and attending school in a high crime area like West Philly, Mr. Woodall knew food, although an important part, was only a partial answer to his community’s needs. The children also needed a safe place to gather and activities to keep them engaged. Involving the town’s teenagers in creating a retail produce business, and with almost all money spent being out of pocket, West Phillie Produce was established in 2009. Teenagers are hired to work in the store, and along with fresh produce, a very impressive list of smoothies you can order is prominently displayed. In addition, West Phillie Produce is home to a Book Club, a Chess Club, a Healthy Eating Club and a Garden Club.

Before the opening of the produce store in 2009, Mr. Woodall created A&W Community Solutions (Advocacy and Work) in 2001. The organization’s purpose is to improve economic development, provide community resources and implement public safety zones. The produce store has surveillance cameras that aid the police in deterring criminal activity. He also mentors and guides young people, helping them to seek better-paying jobs. ServSafe certification, which Mr. Woodall encourages them to obtain, will allow them to apply for more lucrative positions. A ServSafe Manager certification verifies that a manager has sufficient food safety knowledge to protect the public from foodborne illness. Painting, construction and clean-up crews are also trained and organized through A&W Community Solutions.

A Hero’s Heroes

 I asked Mr. Woodall who had influenced him and inspired him to be of service to his community. A similar cause or belief seemed to be a common thread linking the people and groups he mentioned. First was Marcus Garvey: Jamaican political activist, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur and orator. One of his beliefs was that economic strength would garner respect. Malcolm X, an African American Muslim minister and human rights activist, was mentioned next. The following is a quote from Malcolm X – “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Also, inspiration were the programs of the Panthers to help build community self-determination in the ’60s and ’70s. One such program was called the Free Breakfast for School Children Program. Children were going to school hungry, and this made it difficult for them to learn. Once in place, this service allowed many children to be fed. Successful, the program spread to many cities across the United States.

During his younger years, his grandmother kept him out of trouble by teaching him about the importance of food and involving him in their meal preparations. In junior high school, Reverend Martin took Arnett under his wing. With his guidance, Arnett ran track, played basketball, became the editor in chief of the school newspaper and acted in school productions.

When he was about 20 years old, Arnett credits a good friend by the name of Eric ‘Dahoo’ Hurst (now deceased) with providing him a place to live. During this time, they cooked meals together, further enhancing the experience of good people and good food. Discussions centered around the need for local, accessible, fresh, nutritious food and affordable housing. A few years later, Sleighton Farm School in Philadelphia hired Mr. Woodall as a teacher’s aid in the Vocational Department. There he taught landscaping, horticulture and cooking. In the summer, he took over the classes while the teachers were on vacation. He introduced the students to real-world economics. One example of this was his creation of stations in the kitchen, each run by a small group of students. They were given brochures from local supermarkets and a small amount of money to spend on food. Encouraged to keep a spreadsheet of expenses, they were tasked with seeing who could produce the most meals on a budget. The school worked with the Juvenile Justice System to keep adolescents out of prison or keep them from returning to prison. A chance discussion Mr. Woodall had with some of his students asking them what they felt their community needed revealed a desire among the youth to have access to fresh fruit smoothies. Food deserts like West Philly have no nearby supermarkets where affordable, nutritious food can be obtained.

Challenges and Proud Accomplishments

 I wondered what some of Mr. Woodall’s biggest challenges were. He informed me that obtaining financial support through grants has been difficult. Out of the many he has applied for, he has only received two grants. He also felt that not enough economic stimulus money was trickling down to underprivileged communities. Even local politicians who had promised support did not follow through. “Getting lobbyists on Capitol Hill to fight for economic justice is difficult,” he informed me. And an extension of this is that black farmers need money and help with land preservation and solar power. This all ties in to local empowerment: a community that is afforded the resources to sustain itself. Referencing the post-pandemic mantra of ‘getting back to normal,’ Mr. Woodall states, “We cannot afford to get back to normal. Normal wasn’t working for us.”

In the meantime, Mr. Woodall continues to do his part every single day to meet the needs of his underserved community; to be the role model who shows up every day to work and inspire his community.  And while it is true that one person can make a difference, wouldn’t it be nice if his message (that all communities should have the right to expect fresh, affordable, nutritious and easily accessible food) be heard. Whole Foods stepped up to the challenge. Food Works is helping. But, according to Mr. Woodall, more financial support is needed.

Mr. Woodall was also very eager to share his proudest accomplishments. 

  •         “Raising my son from two weeks to becoming a young man.”
  •         “Ridding my community of drugs.”
  •          “Providing affordable, nutritious food to my community.”
  •          “Get Down Don’t Look Around” slogan to help save lives impacted by gun violence.”
  •         “To be able to follow the blueprint of people such as Marcus Garvey.”