Hailing the School Bus Farmers Market

Mobile food is of great interest to me, as is the humble Farmers’ Market. When I bought People magazine a month or so ago, probably whilst picking up some fuel to feed my boredom on the road, I didn’t think that I would be reading about Mark Lilly and his food campaign.

Based in Richmond Virginia, the Farm to Family bus is the new kid on the locally sourced food scene. Inspired, as many seem to have been, by Food Inc, Mark Lilley was given the nudge when he lost his job as a restaurant manager in a local restaurant. While he was working as a restaurant manager he also was studying Disaster Science at The University of Richmond – It was here when writing an essay he found that that mass starvation due to our industrialisation of food was closer than thought. He purchased an old school bus for $3500 from Craigslist, and then replaced the seats with buckets of vegetables and began travelling to key parts of town selling vegetables sourced from within a 150 mile radius. 18 months later they have also recently opened a stand-alone market stall on a main road, which acts as a base to store the growing number of trucks that they have and a place to source the food when the bus isn’t out.

Many of the fruit and vegetables are sourced from the Shenandoah Produce Auction, where a large portion of the growers are Mennonite farmers who use traditionalist farming methods to work the land. The meat and eggs are sourced from Polyface Farm, in Swoope, who describe their farming as ‘beyond organic’. (Polyface Farmer, Joel Salatin was the scene-stealing farmer in Food Inc, and a prolific writer of ‘Farm Friendly Eating’, amongst other books). Other items are sourced closer to home: from his parents farm, or from his own garden to make up the collection of items that he then travels with. These vegetables aren’t organic. But they are grown in sustainable small farms; low impact farming –  not mono-crop mighty farms where most of our supermarket food comes from.

One of the big issues that Mark has ambitiously tried to address is the food deserts of town, where areas are up to 1 mile away from any provision of fresh food. Having to rely on the humble corner store, these impoverished areas are in desperate need of the bus, and yet the Lilleys have spoken about the various struggles they have encountered when doing so. People are unwilling to pay a little bit more for the vegetables, others unsure how to cook them in their raw whole state, others simply not trusting that these out-of-towners are not just another charitable group that will come, and eventually leave the neighbourhood without doing anything sustainable and longterm.

It is such a simple idea. A direct source of vegetables to people, but only whenever he can get to them. My question is: can people rely on this source and its infrequency? Will this gesture, however great it is, get lost in the bigger issues and needs of this community?  I really hope not.

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