The Vegetable Express: A Way to Sell Produce to Those in Need

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Barry Estabrook


"Vegetables for sale!" Hilary Martin hollered. "Sweet corn, watermelons, leeks, tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, carrots, rutabagas, herbs!" Last Wednesday, with storm clouds threatening, Martin cruised slowly down a Burlington, Vermont side street in a 1988 GMC delivery truck. The aged vehicle served two decades in New York City with the United States Postal Service before she picked it up at a dealership in the Bronx a couple of years ago and drove it 250 miles north, where it began a second career as a delivery truck for Diggers' Mirth, a collective farm in Burlington's Intervale area that she operates with four partners.

This summer, the truck added a third title to its resume: roving vegetable stand. One evening a week, members of the cooperative drive the aging vehicle around Burlington's Old North End and peddle organic produce. Vermont may be a hotbed of all things local/sustainable/organic, but the trend bypassed the Old North End, where the median family income in 2000 was only $27,500, and fully one-third of the residents lived in poverty. Like hardscrabble neighborhoods everywhere in the United States, the area has no supermarkets, leaving residents the choice between traveling great distances on less-than-convenient public transportation or paying high prices for shabby-looking produce at local convenience stores—if they can find it.

"People are really psyched to see fresh vegetables," Martin said. "Even if they don't buy, they like the presence of the truck."

Martin and her fellow Diggers saw an irony in that situation. Burlington's Intervale, a 350-acre zone of organic farms, compost projects, and walking trails that sprang out of a junk-strewn floodplain adjacent to the Winooski River in the late 1980s, borders the Old North End. All of the members of the collective live in the neighborhood. And although they sell their crops at a weekly farmers' market in the area (in addition to one in central Burlington), that clearly wasn't enough to satisfy residents' appetite for fresh produce. "We are aware that a lot of social movements can be elitist," Martin (who is the daughter of the woman I live with) said. "So we're trying to bring fresh vegetables to where people are at home and where they are going to use the produce."

When the collective initiated the truck service this past July, they didn't expect immediate profit. Prices were set lower than the going rates at the farmers' markets (a chalkboard on the side of truck offers carrots and tomatoes at $1.50 per pound, watermelon at 50 cents per pound, and herbs at $1.00 a bunch). "You have to build awareness among your customers," Martin said. "It took us a while to make the farmers' market in this neighborhood take off. Now it's great. Besides, we thought it would be fun."

They certainly succeeded on that front. As a riff on the ice-cream-truck jingle, they picked up a used guitar amp at a second hand shop, strapped it to the front bumper with a bungee cord, and broadcast their approach with disco music. "We wanted to do something a little weird," she said. "Make people happy and excited that we are around."

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Barry Estabrook

Her first two "customers" of the evening were certainly happy and excited. "Hey," she called to two grade-school-aged boys on their bikes. "Want a slice of watermelon? It's free," she said.

She stopped the truck and offered them a red plastic bowl full of wedges. Each grabbed two. An elderly woman materialized behind the truck, saying that she needed a half pound of fresh spinach. Within minutes, Martin, attired in dusty jeans and a stained Johnny's Selected Seeds cap, was surrounded by a scrum of customers who were buying tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and carrots as quickly as she could bag them and make change. Others stopped by to grab a free piece of melon. A large woman wearing a billowy black T-shirt came down the sidewalk dancing to "Eye of the Tiger," saying to no one in particular, "These guys always have the coolest jams," as she collected a bunch of radishes and paid, without missing a beat. A jogger in full-Spandex regalia trotted up, purchased an eight-pound watermelon, tucked in under her arm like a football player, and continued on her way.


MORE ON SIMILAR EFFORTS:
Corby Kummer: Vegetables by Rx
Michel Nischan: Farmers' Market Incentives
Helene York: Fields on Wheels

And that pretty much set the tone for the next two hours. Rolling along the streets, Martin hollering her sales prattle out the window, stopping a couple of times on each block to deal with customers.

"People are really psyched to see fresh vegetables," Martin said. "Even if they don't buy, they like the presence of the truck. They smile and laugh."

As if on cue, a young man sporting an impressive tableau of tattoos came out of a house. "Do you guys take food stamps?" he asked. Martin had to explain that they did not have the necessary machine. "But we will next year," she said.

The vegetable truck will make it last run of the year this week as the cooperative's crops thin out and potential customers begin to spend their evenings indoors. To the surprise of the Diggers, it actually turned a modest profit this summer, assuring it another season on the streets of the Old North End.

"When next year?" the foiled food-stamp customer asked.

"In July," said Martin. "As soon as we get the first ripe tomatoes."

Judging by the smile on his face, I'll wager that he will be waiting by the curbside eagerly when the vegetable truck returns.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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