At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sterling Pope found himself unemployed. Like many restaurant workers in the city, he had been laid off from his job as a line cook at Vernick Food & Drink in Center City. He spent the first few months mostly sitting at his home in West Philadelphia, cooking a little bit, but not doing much else.
With all the extra time at home, Pope really got to see his native West Philadelphia again. “I got out there and saw, people have a need, and I realized that I know how to cook and make food. I’m not the Top Chef or anything, but I can still help and I want to help,” he says.
In order to help the people of West Philly, Pope started volunteering with The West Philly Bunnyhop, a group run by chefs and activists Jena Harris and Katie Briggs that has been distributing free prepared food, produce, groceries and household items every week since April 4 in Malcolm X and Cedar parks in West Philly.
As he was volunteering, Pope noticed that many of the people coming to get food were not interested in the boxes full of produce or reheatable foods. Instead, many gravitated towards the pre-made, ready to eat foods, such as cakes and popsicles, that the group was giving out.
Part of the reason for that is that not everyone who is food insecure has the proper resources to prepare a meal. Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services estimates that in 2019 there were 5,700 individuals experiencing homelessness and 950 considered unsheltered in the city. People without homes or shelters often don’t have the resources to reheat or prepare the food they’re given.
In other cases, people didn’t know how to prepare the foods that were in their boxes. Pope recalls people telling him that they didn’t want produce like kohlrabi, because they didn’t know how to use it in their cooking.
“They’d just be like, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t want that. I can’t do anything with that,’” Pope says. “That really hurt. I was effectively unable to help people because I don’t have things that are within their wheelhouse.”
So Pope and another former line cook at Vernick, Zac Cohen, started Buy One Give One Philadelphia, a series of pop-up sandwich shops that use the money from selling sandwiches to make meals that can be donated to food insecure Philadelphians.
Feeding the encampment
During their first event, at the Grays Ferry Skatepark, Pope and Cohen made about 50 sloppy Joes and about 20 were given to the kitchen section at the homeless encampment along the Ben Franklin Parkway. At a second event, they sold and gave away chicken caesar and artichoke caesar sandwiches. For their third event they worked with Bunnyhop and other volunteers and made 40 sandwiches and 160 biscuits and just gave them out at the encampment.
Buy One Get One Philadelphia’s next pop up is this Thursday, July 23, from 6-7:30pm at Musi, 100 Morris Street, where Pope currently works. They’re making barbecue pork and smoked mushroom sandwiches using pork from Elizabeth Farms in Lititz, PA, mushrooms from Primordia Mushroom Farm and bread from Philly Bread.
People can pre-order sandwiches for a suggested donation of $15 to $20. Pope plans to make extra sandwiches to distribute to the encampment after the event. Monetary donations can be sent to their Venmo account @buyonegiveone.
The project has gotten attention and received donations from several other area businesses and restaurants. Middle Child donated around 100 sandwiches to Buy One Give One Philadelphia, which were then distributed to the homeless encampments. FarmArt has donated produce to help prepare the sandwiches, and Pope says several Philly chefs, including Zahav’s Michael Solomonov, have expressed interest in supporting the project.
Using high-quality ingredients to make the sandwiches is part of the project’s mission because Pope and Cohen believe everyone deserves a high-quality meal.
“I don’t want to buy baloney from the grocery store or white bread from the grocery store because a lot of those products aren’t necessarily the best foods for people to eat,” Pope says. “It’s the standard I would provide in a restaurant setting, so why would I not provide it to the people I’m trying to help?”
Filling The People’s Fridge
Currently, Buy One Give One Philadelphia is funded primarily through donations of food and money, and businesses have allowed Pope to buy ingredients at a reduced rate to help make it more affordable.
To make sure that the ingredients are of a high quality, Pope has also invested some of his own money into the project, though he says that amount is greatly dwarfed by the donations and assistance he has received.
Any money that doesn’t go into buying ingredients for the sandwiches is donated to The Fridge on 52nd, which is set to open next to Mina’s World on 52nd Street once the fridge is repaired.
Inspired in part by the community fridges in New York City and the Bay Area, The Fridge on 52nd, also known as The People’s Fridge, is a collaborative project started by Sonam Parikh of Mina’s World and her sister Sonia Parikh, who is the program coordinator for the project. They began working on the Fridge on 52nd shortly after their father passed away from Covid-19.
“Everyone deserves quality food and ready to eat things are good for everybody—people who have homes, who don’t have homes, who are just hungry, who just want to come up and grab a sandwich,” Pope says.
The idea is to have a refrigerator stocked with donated food that people in need can take whenever they have time.
“For us, the Fridge is a way to memorialize his lifelong commitment to feeding people. Our mom and dad instilled the ideals of food justice within us, even though they have never come across the term before. Our father modeled mutual aid for us consistently. Him and my mom really loved organizing diaper and formula drops, meal shares,” the Parikhs said in an email.
“While free produce and pantry items are a good offering, we are aware that scarcity of food is often directly proportional to scarcity of time and energy.”
So far, they have acquired a fridge for the site, have a tech coming to work on repairs and have donors in place to stock it. They’re also working on creating volunteer schedules and a dry pantry program so that people can pick up dry goods as well as refrigerated items.
Once the first fridge is up and running, organizers plan to install refrigerators stocked with food all around West Philadelphia. They’re working with Bunnyhop and other community groups and businesses to keep the Fridge stocked. Pope, who met the Parikhs at a Bunnyhop food donation event in Malcolm X. Park, intends to make 30 sandwiches a day to help keep them stocked with ready to eat meals that people can take as they need.
After years of focusing on his work as a cook, Pope before the pandemic felt that he had become disconnected from the neighborhood he grew up in. While he jokes that he is “West Philadelphia born and raised,” his family moved to North Carolina when he was around 12. He returned to West Philly every summer, however, to work at a daycare center and summer camp that his family owned in the city.
“Coming back here every summer kept me grounded in a sense of reality that I feel like a lot of my peers didn’t have,” he says. “Coming back here as an adult and being in the restaurant scene, at a certain point I lost focus on that. But quarantine brought back that sense of reality. Everyone deserves quality food and ready to eat things are good for everybody—people who have homes, who don’t have homes, who are just hungry, who just want to come up and grab a sandwich.”
Thursday, July 23, 6-7:30pm, $15-$20 donation, Musi, 100 Morris Street. Go here to learn about future pop-ups.
Correction: An earlier version of the story misidentified the people in the photos.Header photo: Craig Scheihing giving out sandwiches, Courtesy Buy One Give One Philadelphia.