Night Market Philadelphia: Connecting Neighbors through Food

Eating together is an inclusive, joyful experience, and every culture has their own way of sharing, celebrating, and engaging around food. In an era plagued by divisiveness, food can be an amazing way to bring communities together.” – Diana Minkus, Senior Associate, The Food Trust

The Food Trust’s Night Market Philadelphia is the city’s original roving street food festival, inspired by Asia’s famous outdoor markets. Since its debut in 2010, 36 Night Markets across diverse Philly neighborhoods have attracted well over 625,000 attendees. This article digs into the rich history of the Night Market, and explores how the city’s staple food event is fostering community wellbeing and reinforcing civic life.

The back story

The Food Trust, founded in 1992, strives to make healthy food available to all. Working with neighborhoods, schools, grocers, farmers and policymakers, The Food Trust has developed a comprehensive approach that combines nutrition education and greater availability of affordable, healthy food. In 2010, the organization received a grant from the William Penn Foundation to test how an evening outdoor food and farmers market might help reinvigorate a local commercial corridor and provide another means of accessing affordable, nutritious food to diverse Philadelphia neighborhoods.

In October 2010, partnering with the East Passyunk Business Improvement District, the very first Night Market kicked off with 16 local vendors and some live music. “We expected a few hundred people to show up,” says Diana Minkus, the Night Market manager who helped develop the program. “It ended up being a booming success. Over 4,000 people showed up, and we ran out of food in the first hour and half! Clearly, we were on to something big. By our first anniversary, Night Markets were drawing over 20,000 attendees.”

Supporting local food vendors

Each Night Market is designed to be a reflection of the host neighborhood, and participants include local food truck vendors, local restaurants, mom and pop shops, and entrepreneurs that are just getting their business off the ground. The Food Trust offers technical assistance to vendors, coaching them through the permitting process for special events. Healthy food choices are also on the menu, proving that street food festivals can offer more than just chicken fingers, cheesesteaks, and hotdogs. For those interested in sourcing local ingredients, The Food Trust makes connections between vendors and local farms. They also encourage vendors to offer smaller portions at lower price points—creating healthier and more affordable options for all attendees.

Multiple measures of success

As highlighted in the Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines, food offers a wellspring of opportunities to celebrate local identity, foster community pride, and enhance participation in public life. Night Market Philadelphia further builds the case for the connection between food, community, and civic life.

At every Night Market, Food Trust staff conduct on-the-ground surveys with folks who are waiting on line. This is supplemented by a digital survey link shared via newsletters and social media, as well as surveys with vendors and local businesses. A 2019 evaluation generated very persuasive data indicating that Night Market is forging new connections and building a sense of trust among Philly residents. At any given Night Market:

  • As many as one-third of attendees say they are visiting the neighborhood for the very first time
  • 85% of attendees are likely or very likely to attend another Night Market
  • 95% of local businesses would like to see another Night Market hosted in their neighborhood
  • 31% of attendees discovered something new about a community after visiting a Night Market
  • 85% of vendors reported that participating in Night Market benefited their business in some way

A grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave The Food Trust a chance to develop targeted strategies for using Night Market to foster neighborhood-driven civic engagement priorities. Working closely with community partners, each Night Market began to roll out programs and initiatives that were most important to the local neighborhood—such as expanding health screenings, testing better street lighting, hosting soccer leagues, and even capturing community stories for radio broadcast.

Inspiring other communities

Night Market Philadelphia’s impact reaches well beyond the city limits. Today, The Food Trust has launched a consulting arm to respond to requests from other communities who want to learn from, and adapt the Night Market model. “With the growing number of food festivals popping up around the country, it shows that this is an organic movement that's growing exponentially,” says Minkus. “We love working with cities, community organizations, and companies who want to create markets that provide healthy food, support the sustainability of local entrepreneurs and farmers, and help build social and civic connections.”

If you’re in Philly, check out the next Night Market on October 3 at Point Breeze & Federal ... and don’t forget to come hungry! #NightMkt

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    El Centro de Oro Night Market. Photo courtesy of Dave Tavani.
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    El Centro de Oro. Photo courtesy of Dave Tavani.
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    Fairmount Ave. Night Market. Photo courtesy of Dave Tavani.
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    Overbrook Night Market. Photo courtesy of Jermaine Avery.
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    Drumline at the Fairmount Ave. Night Market. Photo courtesy of Dave Tavani.