IF YOU DRIVE IT, THEY WILL COME
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
Is the mere presence of a supermarket or farmers market enough to shift the foodways of Bostonians living in food deserts?
In a word, no. Convenient access to healthier food options is certainly a piece of improving low-income residents’ diets—you can’t make the healthy choice if a choice is not readily available. Just as important as access are price and often difficult-to-alter shopping and eating habits. And two new research studies— one out of New York University and another from the Bureau of Economic Research— found very little correlation between the closeness of a supermarket and the kinds of food people are buying.
But when culturally-appropriate and healthy food is made readily available for a price that low-income shoppers can afford, special things can happen.
In early May, for instance, hundreds lined up outside the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center to board a retrofitted school bus stocked with produce and nutritious staple foods. To pay for the food, customers were able to cash in vouchers they’d received through Boston Medical Center HealthNet Plan’s Healthy Lifestyles programs. Each of these “popup markets,” says Fresh Truck co-founder Josh Trautwein, has drawn huge crowds and sold out the bus—but this particular day in Eastie was special.
“We’ve never seen anything like it with these programs,” he says. “It shows that families are willing to shop for and cook healthy food. If they’re not taking the food and cooking it, they’re not going to take the time standing in line. It shows the interest people have to invest in healthy lifestyles for their whole families. It’s been phenomenal.”
Fresh Truck is not alone. Local cities and entrepreneurs are loading up trucks and buses with fresh food and taking it, in many cases, right to people’s doorsteps—often times adding a nutrition education component to the service. And guess what? Families are consuming more fresh food.
The idea to literally drive fresh food into food deserts on a school bus came to Trautwein while teaching low-income families nutrition basics at the Charlestown Community Health Center’s Fitzgerald Youth Sports Initiative. But, he says, “a lot of our nutrition education wasn’t having the intended impact because it was hard for families to access affordable, healthy food.”
With food trucks beginning to gain popularity in cities across the country, Trautwein and fellow Northeastern alum Daniel Clarke envisioned a truck or a bus that could serve families like those in Charlestown who were clamoring for nutritious food options they could afford. So, in late 2012, Trautwein and Clarke put together a business plan and launched a Kickstarter campaign for Fresh Truck. Their project was funded to the tune of more than $32,000.
Fresh Truck hit the road in the summer of 2013, piloting its programs at 12 locations around the city. After a warm welcome and a few bumps in the road, Fresh Truck took a break that winter to draw up a plan for a new truck, strengthen its community partnerships and lay the groundwork to become a nonprofit. Back on the road last summer, Fresh Truck has become an “anchor of health and wellness” in many of the communities where it operates, Trautwein says, by becoming a fixture week after week in the neighborhoods where it operates.
“We’re physically transforming the culture in our housing developments by being a point of engagement around food and health,” he says.
By selling non-local, conventional produce, Fresh Truck can keep prices “comparable to Market Basket,” Trautwein says, while engaging with its communities “within their existing food culture.” For instance, Fresh Truck can stock tropical fruits, which are important to the culinary experience of many of Fresh Truck’s customers, while also introducing new, nutrien-tdense foods.
For Trautwein, the bottom line at Fresh Truck is improving the health of its customers—many of whom have higher rates of obesity and dietrelated disease than the general population—a mission that compelled the co-founders to seek nonprofit status. Fresh Truck’s healthcare partners— Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s, BMC HealthPlan and Blue Cross Blue Shield—are prescribing “food as medicine,” and Trautwein says his high-level goal is for Fresh Truck to “be the solution for food access within the healthcare space.”
As the only mobile food market currently operating in Boston proper, Fresh Truck appears to be well on its way to achieving that goal.
FRESH FOOD GENERATION
When you think food trucks, you probably think artisan grilled cheese, pork belly tacos, or gourmet cupcakes. In Greater Boston, the higher-thanaverage price tags on many of these delicious, scratch-made items mean their target market lives and works in more well-to-do towns and neighborhoods. The rampant success of the trucks along Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway, in the heart of the Financial District, is a case in point.
Fresh Food Generation is different: it went where few food trucks have gone before: Roxbury.
Cassandria Campbell grew up in Roxbury and earned a master’s degree in urban planning from MIT (by way of Swarthmore College), but her heart never left the community where she was raised. While working and studying in other parts of the city, Campbell realized she was never too far from a quick, healthy meal, but nutritious grab-and-go options were few in Roxbury.
Teaming up with fellow Food Project alum Jackson Renshaw—with his background in environmental agriculture—the two conceived Fresh Food Generation, a farm-to-plate food truck and catering business that began serving Dudley Square three days a week on April 1. Renshaw, who’s been on the brightly painted truck every day since opening this spring, says that after working on farms and in farm-to-plate restaurants, he’s excited about providing a distribution channel for people “who have never seen a food truck” to grab a quick, healthy meal.
“I’m basically living out my dream job of feeding people who don’t have access otherwise,” says Renshaw, 25. “While it sounds preachy and weird, I’m really happy with where we’re at right now and excited about what’s to come.”
Funded by a loan from the Boston Impact Initiative and $54,000 raised on Kickstarter, Fresh Food Generation’s simple menu consists mainly of Latin American and Caribbean cuisine, such as chicken and stew dishes, rice plates, salads, and empanadas—all of which were tested with Roxbury and Dorchester residents over the past year. All ingredients are sourced from regional farms—including Brookline’s Allandale Farm, City Growers, and The Food Project in Boston—and prepared in their space at CropCircle Kitchen in Dorchester. The origins of each of the ingredients in the dishes they serve are listed on the truck’s website.
Renshaw says that already he’s noticed the truck has created a space for people to talk about the steps they’re taking to improve their health. News of the truck is spreading word-of-mouth—Fresh Truck Generation has yet to do any formal marketing—and Renshaw estimates that the majority of customers live in the Dudley neighborhood. That, he says, is precisely according to plan: meeting a need in an underserved neighborhood.
“If it ever comes to a point when we’re not fulfilling the mission—we’re catering to the downtown, more financially sustainable crowd—we’d take a pause, because what’s the point?”
THE SOMERVILLE MOBILE FARMERS MARKET
For Kimberly Rodriguez, a trip to the supermarket either involves catching a bus from her apartment, often with her three children in tow, or worse— walking down a dangerous I-93 access road. Able to make a grocery trek only ever two or three weeks, Rodriguez is also limited by what she can carry. Forced to stock up on fresh items, they’d sometimes sit in her refrigerator for days or weeks, on the verge of going bad.
Then the Somerville Mobile Farmers Market showed up. The Market, a service of the City of Somerville’s Shape Up Somerville program in partnership with Groundworks Somerville, is a box truck that pulls right into Rodriguez’s Mystic River Housing Development, selling local vegetables and fruit at wholesale prices. Customers paying with SNAP (Massachusetts’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), like Rodriguez, receive a 50 percent discount. She says her three kids enjoy eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and on the truck “they get to pick out some of the things they want to eat.”
Turns out the adults like to pick out their food as well: a community supported agriculture program rolled out in 2012, in which customers received in their shares whatever was in season, didn’t pan out.
Families like Rodriguez’s are why Somerville piloted the program in 2011, and results of research conducted last year at the Mystic development indicate the market is achieving its goal of increasing affordable access in the city’s food deserts. 81% of market shoppers say it helps them or their children eat more fruit and vegetables, while a plurality of respondents cited “prices,” “quality produce” or “location” as the top reasons they frequent the truck, according to an evaluation conducted by researchers Janaki Blum and Sara Shostak. Rodriguez says the convenient mobile market “has brought more nutrition to people who live around here that weren’t getting it before.”
The idea for a truck actually came from a group of immigrant youth at the Welcome Project, who told city officials about a similar mobile market in their home countries. The truck allows the market to “go to far more stops with less overhead” than if it were a static farmer’s market, says Erica Satin-Hernandez, coordinator of Shape Up Somerville who also oversees the mobile market. Besides frequenting the Mystic River Development, the market also visits the Clarendon Housing Development and this year has added stops at the East Somerville Library and the Winter Hill Community Innovation School. Also new this year is the addition of producetowing bicycles, ridden by Somerville youth, which will bring food to four smaller satellite locations.
The food is sourced from Enterprise Farm in South Deerfield, through Groundworks Somerville, and starting this year, World Farmers in Lancaster will begin to provide immigrant-grown, culturally-appropriate produce to be sold at the market.
“If you can’t have produce that’s familiar to you, you can’t eat as healthy,” Satin-Hernandez says.
Maybe that’s what this all comes down to: lowering the barriers for people to choose healthier food and raising residents’ nutrition IQ. For the thousands living in Boston, Somerville and beyond, in communities where junk food is more prevalent than real food, buses and trucks delivering fresh produce are making those choices more convenient, affordable and dignified. Roll on.
STEVE HOLT covers food and beverage, nutrition policy and urban issues for local and national publications and has been featured in the annual Best Food Writing anthology. East Boston is home. Connect with him on Twitter and Insta-gram: @thebostonwriter.