[Published by ZesterDaily.com, August 7, 2013]
There’s nothing understated about the vehicle. A converted school bus painted lime green and adorned with images of carrots, tomatoes and strawberries, it looks like the brainchild of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters had they been obsessed with produce instead of LSD. The fact that it’s parked in a dreary convenience-store lot along the Anacostia Freeway in northeast Washington, DC, only adds to the hallucinogenic effect—which is fitting for a mobile farmers market bringing fresh ingredients to the capital’s food deserts. The bus is a kind of oasis for overlooked communities that could rightly be forgiven for thinking it is a mirage.
Sandwiched between Interstate 295 and the Anacostia River, the area around the Circle 7 Express lot includes subsidized housing and a residence for seniors, but what it doesn’t have is an easily accessible source of fresh, appetizing food. The closest supermarket is nearly a mile from where the bus is parked, and reaching that Safeway on foot involves crossing over the buzzing interstate via a series of ramps and walkways.
Considering that DC has the eighth-highest rate of childhood obesity in the country (tied with Alabama and Georgia in state rankings), the dearth of quality food is not unique to one neighborhood. If people cannot get to a farmers market, why not bring the market to them? So went the thinking at Arcadia, the local nonprofit that created this farmstand on wheels.
Currently in its second season, the bus makes nine fixed weekly stops where it sells organic produce, dairy products, poultry, meat, eggs, bread, honey, and granola—all sourced predominantly from within a 100-mile radius of the city.
Farmers sell Arcadia their bounty wholesale, and the group passes along the savings to its customers. Those on public assistance—food stamps, senior vouchers, and WIC (aimed at pregnant women, new mothers, and young children)—can pay with government vouchers, and Arcadia matches the dollar value by up to $10 on fruits and vegetables and another $10 on eggs and meat.
“You still have $1.50 left. Maybe some kale?” market director Benjamin Bartley asks one of his shoppers, helping her determine what else she can purchase without going over.
“The food is affordable, and so fresh,” says Porsche Johnson. “I live near here, so it’s convenient—though two days per week would be better.” As her son sneaks a strawberry into his mouth, she laughs. “My kids like the bus, and it beats having them eat candy.”
Sources of hope
Though a large part of the mobile market’s inventory is drawn from Arcadia’s own farm in Alexandria, Virginia, the group relies on other sources to round out the supply. Among them is Common Good, the district’s largest urban farm and the site of a weekly market stop. Located in the LeDroit Park neighborhood of northwest DC, this nonprofit hands out up to 10 pounds of produce per week to income-qualifying residents who spend two hours helping out on the farm’s half-acre plot or attending a workshop on cooking or gardening.
Technically, the US Department of Agriculture does not consider LeDroit Park a food desert, though that doesn’t mean quality produce abounds. “A lot of our participants have to take more than one bus to get to a grocery store,” says farm manager Anita Adalja.
“The place that’s closest to here is Cookie’s Corner, and there’s no fresh food in there,” she adds, referring to a convenience mart where people pay for sodas and chips by depositing their cash in a lazy Susan that spins around to a clerk ensconced safely behind thick glass.
When the bus’ awning is unfurled and the market opens for business, it’s more than just food that’s traded. Cooking demos and tastings provide inspiration for using ingredients that are unfamiliar to some, and Arcadia staffer Juju Harris has just written a cookbook, which will be offered free to those on public assistance. It includes tips on everything from stocking your pantry to selecting ripe eggplant.
A former WIC recipient herself, Harris understands the challenges of preparing healthy, affordable meals. “I tell folks they don’t have to buy things like fancy sea salt to cook well. Good old kosher salt is fine.”
But when it comes to some of the older shoppers, the emphasis is on memories rather than learning. “DC has a large population of seniors who grew up on farms in places like North Carolina,” says Bartley. “They don’t need us to tell them what a good tomato tastes like.”
That respectful spirit doesn’t escape notice. “Everyone’s helpful here,” says Shaunte Brown. “You can ask questions, and it’s not just about selling. They treat people nicely.”
In a city that’s seemingly become a poster child for dysfunction and stasis, Arcadia and Common Good are giving new life to the idea of grassroots change. Their work is intensely local, but their vision is broader. “I want to show for-profit grocers that if they bring their produce to these communities, people will buy it,” says Bartley. “Ideally, we hope to work ourselves out of a job.”
[Recipe courtesy of Juju Harris, from her as-yet untitled cookbook.]
1 pound eggplant (1 large or 2 small)
4 small sweet peppers (or two large ones)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced
3 large ripe tomatoes, diced (or 4 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half)
1/2 cup basil, finely sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
- Cut the unpeeled eggplant into 1 -inch cubes.
- Core the peppers, discarding the seeds, and cut into a large dice.
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and brown the eggplant. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
- Lower the heat to medium-low and cook the peppers, onion and garlic until they are tender, about 10 minutes.
- Return the eggplant to the skillet and add the tomatoes. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until the tomatoes have reduced to a thick sauce.
- Stir in the basil, salt, pepper, and garbanzo beans.