Fields on Wheels: Teaching With a Truck Farm

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Courtesy of Curt Ellis


Did you know that eggs aren't grown from eggplants? Or that food doesn't actually come from a bag? If you did, then chances are you're not a New York City kid seeing food grow for the first time.

Though it's been decades since I picked my first scallions and radishes on an eight- by eight-foot garden plot I tended as a child in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, my urban agriculture experience--without the fancy name then, of course--didn't jumpstart a career in farming. But it did help me understand where my food came from and appreciate the taste of garden-fresh vegetables. Few of my RingDings Era cohorts had that experience, and it shows in what we've grown up to eat. But the current proliferation of school- and community-based gardens (even small farms) is giving me hope about the future of the food system.

One of the garden projects I love is Curt Ellis's and Ian Cheney's Truck Farm. Having planted tomatoes and peas in the bed of an old pickup they filled with topsoil, they show urban kids that food comes from somewhere and that "we can all tend a plant or two even if we don't own an inch of land." Ellis explains: "Last week we visited a dozen New York City schools in our mobile garden project. Throngs of 1st-through-12th-graders crammed around Ian's old Dodge to get a glimpse of what food looks like as it grows." Responses ranged from the aghast ("But the vegetables--they're growing in dirt!") to the inspired ("I saw what you did with your truck, so I borrowed this shoe from grandpa--and I PLANTED IT!").

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Courtesy of Curt Ellis

Truck Farm, like the greening of Detroit and Milwaukee, is about demystifying where food comes from and how it is grown. For children who live where a plot of dirt usually undergirds an abandoned building rather than a prolific garden, this is a profound lesson, and where gardens do grow it often means enough food for dinner, too.

What Ellis and Cheney also do, very effectively, is inject much-needed humor into a national conversation about food and agriculture that has a tendency to get testy at times (and, with such high stakes, it's understandable). Besides the pickup, the other half of the Truck Farm project is expected to be a delightful documentary about a group of New Yorkers growing fresh food in unexpected places: rooftop farms producing food on a commercially-viable scale, vacant lots being reclaimed for school food, and a barge full of egg-laying chickens. These days, the tree growing in Brooklyn seems to be bearing fruit.

As a supply chain manager trying to ensure steady, large-scale supplies of responsible food throughout the U.S., I find that stories about the flowering of urban agriculture and campus and corporate farms make my day. I constantly field calls from chefs concerned about suppliers' claims. While there are some stellar regional food producers, but there are also too many companies marketing their products as "sustainable" with no evidence to support the claim in any way. Just this week I had to go deep to learn that a would-be chicken supplier raises their birds on enhanced doses of antibiotics as a routine feed additive (a direct contradiction to our purchasing standards) and that a well-known "natural" beef brand includes trim in its ground beef. (Our specifications are "solid muscle" and "no trim allowed" for food safety reasons.) Their marketing claims are written in the hopes that chefs won't question them further.

My enthusiasm for the future of our food system doesn't come from being able to determine what's right or wrong with would-be suppliers claims (though I admit I do take some satisfaction in helping chefs spot false attributes). It comes from thinking about kids in Brooklyn and Detroit who are beginning to get a feel for what garden-fresh food looks, smells, and tastes like, and who are delighted by what they are eating. They'll grow up to know that eggs aren't from eggplants, and they won't believe any marketer who tries to tell them otherwise. I hope they even become our suppliers.

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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