Bringing Food to the People

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Photo by John Waldie


"Ooh, look at these little onions--they're so cute," Nancy Eraca exclaimed, admiring a basket of small, purple scallions. "Bet they're good, too. Fresh. Not like what you get in the store. You use one piece and have to throw the rest away because it's gone bad."

Eraca was one of the customers stocking up one recent afternoon on organic broccoli, collards, eggplant, and other vegetables--all of it harvested that morning--at Common Greens. The new roving farm stand in Beacon, N.Y. was set up in the parking lot of Forestall Heights, a public housing complex with a large senior-citizen population. For the residents there, most of whom no longer drive, the stand offered a rare chance to buy fresh-picked organic vegetables.

"To get to the farmers market, I would need to take a taxi," Virginia Klein said, leaning an arm on her walker and holding a bag of produce with the other. "That can be very expensive."

"This is not about selling all our vegetables. It's about getting people access to fresh food," says Helanna Bratman.

Operating out of a bio-diesel-powered bus painted bright green and emblazoned with colorful images of vegetables, Common Greens serves the elderly and minority residents of this once-industrial Hudson Valley city, who--despite the recent resurgence of agriculture in the area--have limited access to fresh, healthful food. The market, which launched in July, keeps its prices low and accepts food stamps and WIC checks.

A collaboration between Common Ground Farm--a nearby CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)--and the Green Teen Community Garden Program--a Cornell Cooperative Extension offering that teaches young people about sustainable farming--the teen-staffed enterprise is part of a small but growing network of so-called "mobile markets" across the country, including in Buffalo, N.Y., New London, Conn., and New Orleans.

Although they hearken back to the grocery trucks that served the rural South and West before interstates and big-box stores, the new iterations are a decidedly urban phenomenon, roaming through neighborhoods supermarkets abandoned as far back as the 1960's in favor of the suburbs.

"It's not a new problem, but it's getting a lot more attention than it used to because of the health issues related to it, such as obesity and diabetes," says Andy Fisher, executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition, a Portland, Ore.-based national organization that represents the interests of 300 member groups.

Fisher sees the mobile markets as part of a greater movement to find solutions, from grassroots efforts like urban farms and food co-ops to New York City's high-profile, public-private "Green Carts" initiative, which aims to put 1,000 fruit and vegetable stands on the streets of underserved neighborhoods in five boroughs.

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Photo by John Waldie


Fisher says mobile markets have caught on for their direct approach: "You're bringing food to the people, instead of the people to the food." Most of all, he said, while building a supermarket can take years of planning and an enormous amount of capital, a mobile market is "something relatively easy to do on a small scale but with tangible results."

That's what the People's Grocery in West Oakland, Calif. realized seven years ago when the community organization scrapped plans for a bricks-and-mortar grocery and created what is believed to be the first of this new breed of mobile market.

"Selling food was just one the goals," the co-founder and executive director Brahm Ahmadi says. "Outreach and education were others. It got people started talking about food security and the fact there was no supermarket here."

The revamped postal truck, with its psychedelic paint job and solar-powered sound system, was a hit with shoppers and served as a model for other markets. But People's Grocery shut it down in 2006. The mobile market could never come close to filling the needs of West Oakland's 30,000 residents, Ahmadi said. Nor was it ever profitable. (He chalked it up to "an issue of scale.") People's Grocery has once again set its sights on a supermarket, and is now planning a for-profit entity that will serve as a community hub with health and nutrition services.

But for the organizers of Common Greens, the mobile market's educational value--for the teens who work there and their customers alike--is enough, at least for now.

"This is not about selling all our vegetables," says Helanna Bratman, Project Coordinator for the Green Teen program. "It's about getting people access to fresh food and letting them know there are these other possibilities out there--like farmers markets and CSAs."

Common Ground has struggled to broaden its reach, even though it offers specially priced shares for low-income households.

"Food justice is a part of our mission," says Lisa Jessup, who serves on the board of the farm, which covers five acres and has about 180 members. "The mobile market was a way for us to take another step and say we'll come to you."

Even so, sales have been uneven. On a recent Friday afternoon, Bratman and Jessup found few customers at their second stop, a quiet cul-de-sac at another public housing complex. They discussed how they might attract more interest--including adding more signs advertising that the market accepts food stamps.

Still, Mariliz Balbuena, 18 and a member of the Green Teen program, remains upbeat. No matter how many customers there were, she says she felt good knowing the food is "organic and they're eating healthy."

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Rebecca Rothbaum is a New York-based freelance writer who has contributed to the New Yorker, Gourmet, New York magazine, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications.

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