Whately farm bus brings veggies to Springfield

The Recorder, July 27, 2013. By Richie Davis

From Whately’s Enterprise Farm to Gentile Apartments in Springfield’s South End is less than 30 miles, but it can feel like more than that when you’re driving the minibus some have dubbed “Farmship Enterprise,” crammed with zucchini and tomatoes, lettuce and lots, lots more.

For Paula Girard and the 20 or so other shoppers — including several older, babushka-topped Russian women — who turned out Wednesday at 9:30 right outside the Springfield Housing Authority’s seven-story project, it’s the shortest path to getting fresh, organic vegetables.

“These guys are good!” says the public housing tenant, as she approaches the converted minibus, white with green and blue decals and a variety of stickers like “Yes Farms Yes Food.”

She explains, “The only other store, down the road, is too expensive. (Here) You pay half price with your EBT (food stamp) card. The full price is good, too.”

And then she heads off to reserve her place at the fold-out table that’s been set up for blueberries, sweet corn, kale and other produce fresh from Franklin County.

Enterprise Farm’s Mobile Market Bus, as it’s formally known, is in its second year as part of the farm’s commitment to improving “food justice” — getting fresh produce to people who have a hard time getting to a supermarket.

Because of the struggling economy, said Enterprise Farm owner David Jackson, “A lot of businesses have looked away from the city and left, so now you’re hard-pressed to get good fresh food in the city, and a lot of people have limited mobility and don’t have cars.”

Jackson’s solution — based on a Virginia farmer’s “veggie bus” — was to buy a used bus in New York City, have the seats torn out, and fill it with fresh produce from the 95-acre River Road farm, which also operates two CSAs, a “food shed” Saturday retail market and farm stands in Northampton and two Boston area locations.

Jane Monson, who ambles over to the mobile market with her walker in hopes of finding some raspberries, corn and cucumbers, says she has someone to help do shopping for her — at the nearest Big Y supermarket, across the river, in West Springfield, or across town at Stop & Shop — but she prefers to bring her two large plastic shopping bags to fill with veggies here.

“It’s cheaper here. I like it here.”

The chalk board inside, above installed wooden racks that hold green plastic containers, lists today’s prices: corn, 3 for $1; lettuce, $1.50; squash $1.50 a pound.

Back outside, Lauren Beaudoin, an artist from Mattoon Street wearing a backpack and sneakers, stands out as the youngest customer on line.

“This is more convenient for the local community, and it’s good for the community,” she said. “It’s hard unless you know about the (Forest Park) farmers market, and if you don’t have access to transportation, that’s hard to get to. The local bodegas around here, I don’t know if they have produce, but if they do, it’s slim pickings.”

The local shoppers aren’t the only ones thrilled with having the Whately vegetables delivered directly to customers in areas that have come to be described as food deserts.

“We’re really pleased with the mobile market. Enterprise Farm goes where no farm has gone before,” jokes Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, which along with Enterprise will benefit from a gala dinner today at the Whately farm, sponsored by Whole Foods Market in Hadley.

The 6 p.m. dinner, the first of what’s hoped to be an annual event to honor local producers around the Pioneer Valley, will feature a gourmet, locally sourced menu. It’s aimed at raising awareness about the work of CISA’s Senior FarmShare program, its Winter Fare food-stamp match program and the Enterprise Mobile Market.

“We’re not a hunger organization, but we feel farmers play a tremendous role in growing food for everybody,” said Korman. “We’re totally committed to not having local food turned in any way into a gourmet ghetto. A lot of farmers have direct relationships to the Food Bank (of Western Massachusetts) and food pantries, and they are committed to their neighbors. If we could get more people to be able to buy local food, it will be to the benefit of the entire community, including farmers.”

Jackson, whose farm also supplies the Northampton Food Pantry, said the mobile market is able to sell its produce at affordable prices — doubling Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and accepting WIC and MA Farmer’s Market Coupons is a matter of efficiencies.

“The product is all picked and prepped at the farm, as if we were shipping to a distributor,” he said. “It’s all loaded on the bus at the farm, so we don’t have the cost of driving somewhere hours upon hours and having to set up and stand there waiting for nobody to show up. It’s boom, boom, boom and we close the doors and move on.”

This year, the second season for the mobile market, which hits 10 senior centers and other stops like City Hall, the YWCA and health centers around the city, is turning out to be a pleasant surprise, said Jackson. Unlike sales at typical farmers’ markets, which he said have been hurt by this summer’s hot weather, “Sales off the bus are growing because people who need the food are going to come out despite the weather. It’s been very interesting and uplifting.”

Yet while there’s a heavy demand for the novelty of fresh, local products at places like Pine Pointe and Greenleaf senior centers and Independence House low-income housing, where the mobile market was headed later on Wednesday, Jackson said that an attempt to send the veggie bus to Greenfield’s Leyden Woods seemed to make less sense.

“Franklin County doesn’t experience food hardship for good, nutritional produce the way Hampden and Hampshire counties do,” he said. “Everyone has an uncle with a garden, and there’s enough open space in Franklin County that there’s a good amount of produce.”

Jackson rails about people who complain about EBT cards and SNAP participants without realizing that they include plenty of veterans, older people and disabled people.

“It bothers me when people start spreading misinformation, especially when some of these older people have got nothing,” he says.

Korman says that CISA is trying to build a greater awareness about the importance of local agriculture in Hampden County through campaigns to build support at restaurants and farmers markets.

“We believe that for this local food system to really succeed in the three counties, we really need more demand on the part of Hampden County folks, where two out of three people live. We’re really hoping that over time, our farmers, rather than having their secondary market being Boston or New York City, having it be Hampden County. If we can create more interest and demand on the part of all members of the community — from folks who have less money to people who have a lot of money, that’s going to benefit farmers in all three counties.”

Like Jackson, he said, “We believe every member of the community should have access to local food. And the mobile market, which matches food stamps and accepts senior farmers market coupons and WIC, is all set up to go and going where the people are.”