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‘We don’t plan on stopping anytime soon’: Fort Lauderdale street market offers free food, no questions asked

Volunteer James Musters, left, hands out food during Sister Robin Street Market. The street market gives out free locally grown food every other Saturday to those in need. (John McCall/South Florida ֱ)
Volunteer James Musters, left, hands out food during Sister Robin Street Market. The street market gives out free locally grown food every other Saturday to those in need. (John McCall/South Florida ֱ)
Lois K. Solomon, reporter for the South Florida ֱ
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Deep in a neighborhood near the New River in Fort Lauderdale, a line of cars begins assembling and quickly stretches almost to Las Olas Boulevard.

It’s Saturday, Sister Robin Street Market Day. And that means bags of just-picked vegetables and freshly baked pastries are being given away. Free. No questions asked — except for what kinds of vegetables should go in your bag.

The project, organized by volunteers at First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, began in 2020, when pandemic restaurant closures forced vegetables to rot in South Florida fields. But it didn’t die as the pandemic waned, and has morphed into an every-other-Saturday source of food for the hungry.

A small cadre of volunteers begin each market in a prayer circle, seeking good fortune for the needy who are lining up for food. The needy are also welcome to appeal to God.

Volunteer Kathy Mayers greets people during Sister Robin's Street Market on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024 at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale. The street market gives out free locally grown food every other Saturday to those in need. (John McCall/South Florida ֱ)
Volunteer Kathy Mayers greets people during Sister Robin Street Market on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, at First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale. (John McCall/South Florida ֱ)

“People who are regulars know that I will pray with them on the spot,” said Robin Haines Merrill, the market’s founder.

Merrill is a “garden-variety Christian” missionary who served 15 years in the Philippines and former manager of a nonprofit art gallery on Las Olas Boulevard. She was deeply familiar with the church’s Colee Hammock neighborhood, having raised her kids at First Presbyterian. So when COVID-19 hit in 2020, she knew a great place for outdoor food distributions: a live oak tree on church property. The market is an outreach arm of the church, which helps raise money to buy produce from the farms.

“When COVID first shut down the restaurants on Las Olas, I saw someone post a photograph of what I thought were yellow and green hills. And I knew we didn’t have hills in Florida,” Merrill recalled. “I was shocked that these were mounds of squash and zucchini that farmers had to dump in the fields nearby because restaurants closed down. So I went to the fields and filled my car up.”

This was no easy task, as she suffers from several illnesses and traumatic injuries from two car crashes. Merrill announced on social media that she had saved the vegetables and anyone was welcome to partake.

“It became so popular that people kept asking me to do it, but I am disabled and did not have the strength,” Merrill said. “Three women came and volunteered, and we also raised money online and were able to buy boxes from the farmers at $10 a box. We were able to give away vegetables three times a week in the early days.”

Volunteers Joe Bush and James Musters prepare bags of food during Sister Robin's Street Market on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024 at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale. The street market gives out free locally grown food every other Saturday to those in need. (John McCall/South Florida ֱ)
Volunteers Joe Bush and James Musters prepare bags of food during Sister Robin Street Market on a recent Saturday at First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale. (John McCall/South Florida ֱ)

Almost four years later, two volunteers now pick up produce every other Saturday from in Greenacres. Volunteers still help raise money, along with the church, to buy produce, for which they pay wholesale prices of about $15 a bushel.

On a recent market day, spinach and collard greens also came in from , a community garden in Fort Lauderdale’s Sistrunk neighborhood. And through a partnership with Lauderhill Baptist Church, its pastor brings pastries donated by a grocery store in exchange for vegetables, which he donates to six parishioners.

Drivers waiting in the pickup line seemed especially excited about the pastries and said they were grateful to find free items when food costs have skyrocketed. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, .

The cost of food remains a struggle for so many South Floridians. Ernesto Manso, an Uber Eats driver and traveling nurse from Miramar, said he had parked his car at nearby Colee Hammock Park a few weeks ago to have lunch when he saw boxes of vegetables arriving at the church’s Fellowship Hall and asked about the project.

He said he typically shops for food at Walmart, or at Publix when they offer Buy-One-Get-One-free deals.

But Wilma Wright, of Fort Lauderdale, said she can no longer afford to shop at Publix. She learned about the street market when she was getting help from The Legacy Closet, a now-closed assistance charity in Margate that offered household items and nonperishable food.

She said she has been getting food from Sister Robin for two years. “This helps a lot,” Wright said.

An assortment of cars moved through the line, ranging from a beat-up Toyota Prius to a Jaguar convertible. But there’s no judgment, and everyone gets a warm welcome with questions only about preferred food items. The volunteers pack 40 bags; they take any leftovers to homeless people they know.

“We don’t plan on stopping anytime soon,” Merrill said. “The cost of living in South Florida is so staggering for people that don’t have rent control. And so many of our people are caretakers. They need to be healthy to do good works.”

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Sister Robin Street Market

WHEN: First and third Saturdays through May, 4 p.m.

WHERE: First Presbyterian Church’s Fellowship Hall, 451 Tarpon Drive, Fort Lauderdale

INFORMATION: Call Robin Haines Merrill at 954-592-6021, or visit and search for “Sister Robin Street Market”

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