Night Markets to end as Philly’s Food Trust makes layoffs amid financial crisis

The nonprofit’s many farmers markets around the region are expected to continue as usual.

Night Market at El Centro de Oro in North Philly

Night Market at El Centro de Oro in North Philly

J. Fusco / Visit Philadelphia

The Food Trust, the 27-year-old nonprofit that runs farmers markets and leads healthy eating initiatives around the Philadelphia region, is making layoffs and ending longtime programs amid a financial crunch, according to founder Duane Perry.

Changes will be immediate and sweeping: the organization recently accessed a line of credit to make payroll; its popular Night Market program does not have funding to continue in 2020; and a staff reduction is being enacted today.

About a dozen layoffs are being made across a team of 100 or so people. Perry characterized the staff cuts as painful but necessary. Some employees said they had been warned of the coming terminations at an all-hands meeting last Thursday.

“We needed to make some really hard decisions,” Perry told Billy Penn. “We’ve made the right moves to reduce the kind of work that we love to do but wasn’t supported. We’re in the process of refocusing on our core programs.”

The news follows the sudden resignation of the Food Trust’s 18-year executive director Yael Lehman last week. Perry, who founded the nonprofit in 1992 and left in 2006, has returned to serve as interim CEO.

While Lehman’s salary was around $180,000, according to tax records, Perry said he is working on a volunteer basis, and other senior staff have also offered to take pay cuts or to resign, actions that reportedly reduced the number of necessary layoffs by half.

The Night Markets, which have brought street food festivals to neighborhoods across the city since 2010, were one of The Food Trust’s most visible and lauded efforts — but also one of the biggest monetary drains.

Originally supported by grant funding, the evening food truck pop-ups faced challenges in fundraising via sponsors or other methods, Perry said. He noted that some communities, such as Chinatown, picked up the baton and began organizing their own Night Market-like events, which can continue independent of The Food Trust.

The Night Market scheduled for Oct. 3 in Point Breeze will go forward as planned.

The 20-plus farmers markets organized by The Food Trust around the region are unlikely to see any disruption. “Those are core to our mission,” Perry said.

Also a key part of the agency are the SNAP-Ed and childhood nutrition programs it runs in supermarkets and schools. Per Perry, those efforts account for about half of the organization’s approximately $10 million budget.

The financial descent that began last year escalated to a near-crisis because of a lack of consistent funding for general operations — a pervasive problem that plagues many nonprofits these days.

“My informed understanding is that people who were on programs or grants that were ending, there was a desire to [keep them on staff],” Perry said.

Over the past several years, more and more employees were transitioned to the nonprofit’s general operating budget, which couldn’t sustain the growth. Layoffs were only a matter of time. “At some point we reached a tipping point,” Perry said.

Staff who are laid off are welcome to reapply for other positions at the organization, he said.

Other cost-cutting measures in play include scaling back some research initiatives, selling off nonessential equipment, and reducing the amount of office space at The Food Trust’s headquarters at 1617 JFK Blvd., aka the Suburban Station building.

A search will eventually be launched for a new CEO. Perry expects the organization he founded to fully recover — though not without help.

“The agency is in a strong position. We have a great foundation and lots of future work, as well as current work,” Perry said. “We do need to find funding in order to reduce longer term debt to make it short term. We’re always looking, and appreciate the support that donors give.”

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