On a scale of two-aisle bodega to Whole Foods Market, most city food-shopping options divide along economic class lines, with people generally sticking to their own neighborhoods when it's time to feed their families.
One big exception is the Reading Terminal Market, a nationally known foodie mecca, but less famous for accepting more food stamps than nearly any other shopping site in the state.
For generations, low-income Philadelphians in supermarket deserts such as North Philadelphia have taken the bus to shop at the Terminal, buying produce and pork chops alongside food tourists and high-waged gourmands who think of the place as a gotta-go destination for $36-a-pound artisanal cheese, specialty meats, and innumerable edibles (Beiler's Bakery doughnuts, anyone?) of varying prices.
"Here, unlike anywhere I can think of, people from all walks of life cross paths," said Sarah Levitsky, marketing and event manager at the Terminal. "And no barriers between people exist."
There is a Walt Whitmanesque quality to the image of hungering multitudes flocking to the Center City spot, said Bryn Mawr College English professor Kate Thomas, who volunteers at the Fair Food Farmstand in the Terminal. The stand offers coupons to shoppers using food stamps, adding as much as $40 a month toward a person's purchases. "Whitman would love a crowd and the flow of humanity. It's accessible and democratic."
I hear America shopping? Leaves of Arugula?
The other day at Iovine Bros. Produce, 70-year-old Cuban refugee Veronica Hernandez paid for her cantaloupes with food stamps, while Debbie Oliver, 55, a retired IRS worker, bought her fruit with cash.
Neither knows the other, but they were in line together, sharing a Market moment.
For Oliver, the Reading Terminal is a lively place with "a mixed crowd with no incidents." She added, "Anyone who uses food stamps here is shopping wisely."
Yamila Williams, 42, a nurse and Hernandez's daughter, spoke for her mother, who knows only Spanish.
"Reading Terminal is middle ground for anybody from North or South Philly," said Williams, who augmented her mother's food stamps with money from a designer wallet. "You see people with the income of my mother, who's on disability, shopping with others making an income closer to mine."
And, Williams added with a laugh, "everyone knows it's the best part of jury duty."
Underscoring the whole Whitman/democracy-in-motion vibe, the market is a favored lunch spot of jurors from the nearby Municipal Court building performing their civic duty. Around noon, shoppers appear to give wide berth to solemn formations of people wearing "Juror" stickers, as though onlookers fear an incautious word may sway a verdict in some unknown case.
In his 2011 book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson lauded the Reading Terminal Market as a space where diverse people crossing class and racial lines gather and feel at ease.
That's how Wayne Baranek, manager of Martin's Specialty Sausage Co., sees it. His customers are "an eclectic blend," he said, adding, "We get our fair share of food stamp users, a lot of them older folks."
People with food stamps can buy meats, dairy, produce, and some bakery items, but no prepared or hot foods, according to federal rules.
The exact ranking of the Terminal as a redeemer of food stamps, now known as SNAP benefits (for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), is not available because the U.S. Department of Agriculture won't release sales figures. An ongoing court case in which an organization representing retail food stores sued to keep sales information secret precludes the agency from providing statistics, a USDA spokeswoman said.
But, Levitsky said, the USDA "has told us multiple times that we are one of the largest, if not the largest, single-location redeemers of food stamps in the state."
In all, around 1.8 million Pennsylvanians receive SNAP benefits, more than 482,000 of them in Philadelphia. Nationally, 75 percent of SNAP recipients are children, the disabled, and the elderly, according to figures from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
The average benefit per person is a little more than $120 a month, according to the coalition. That means that although the Terminal is welcoming, a shopper using SNAP benefits has to be careful.
"There are better deals at the Italian Market," asserted Joshua Nagel, 43. The South Philadelphia construction worker, who gets SNAP benefits, balked at buying a $2 yogurt, but added, "I was so hungry."
The Terminal is still worth it, he added.