The old school bus painted with big green and purple leaves pushed through the icy rain to ease alongside Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx. The door swung open with a squeak, revealing a cornucopia of organic eggs, potatoes, onions, garlic, cabbage, apples and turnips piled on the seats.
Tanya Fields, the founder of this rolling veggie mart, hopped out and beckoned to an old man on the sidewalk. “Go on, see what we’ve got,” she said. “I promise I won’t bite you. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, you can take some apples for free.” The man hesitated, then folded his umbrella and climbed aboard.
If Manhattan and Brooklyn have treat trucks dispensing gourmet bites on street corners, the South Bronx also has a food mobile of its own: one that delivers fruits and vegetables straight from the farm to the tables of the poor and struggling. The effort, called the South Bronx Mobile Market, was started last month with $65,000 in donations and grants raised by Ms. Fields, the executive director of the BLK Projek, a nonprofit group that sees food as a way to empower minority women and youth and stimulate local development.
The mobile market, which is modeled after similar efforts in Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans, strives to help people eat and live better in an impoverished borough that has been racked by some of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems in the city. A common gripe among residents of the South Bronx — home to a sprawling wholesale produce market in Hunts Point — is that grabbing a burger and fries is far easier and cheaper than finding ripe tomatoes or crisp greens in local stores.
“You have to go outside the community to get good, fresh vegetables,” said Shirley Littleton, 48, a program specialist for the disabled who shops in Washington Heights and Chinatown at least once a month for fresh produce. “You will not find it in the ghetto.”
Ms. Fields, 33, who is expecting her fifth child, does the work for her neighbors by buying fruits and vegetables from Corbin Hill Farm, a network of rural farms, and reselling the produce from what she calls a “supermarket on wheels.” She tries to hit the street each Tuesday and Wednesday. The bus, which is borrowed from another farm, runs on used vegetable oil. Ms. Fields plans to install solar panels on the roof — with a $12,000 donation from Green Mountain Energy — to power a refrigerator and freezer that can be used to store meats, organic milk and cheeses. She said she would like to join other community groups to offer cooking demonstrations and health screenings.
“I am saving my own life,” said Ms. Fields, who moved to the South Bronx more than a decade ago from Harlem. “These are my folks. I know what they go through. This resonates with me and I want to do something to help them, and to help me.”
Ms. Fields said that she keeps prices low — $3 for a dozen organic eggs, $1.50 for a pound of onions, $1 for a pound of turnips — and accepts food stamps along with cash and credit cards. In recent weeks, she has given away much of the produce to attract customers, and simply to help feed those who say they cannot spare even a dollar.
Last week on Southern Boulevard, Ms. Fields sold about $40 in eggs, onions and turnips and handed out a box and a half of apples in a three-hour period. Carlos Brito, 46, a butcher, took two apples for his children. “There’s a big difference from the supermarket and from the farm to the Bronx,” he said. “The flavor is good.”
Myra Olivero, 50, a part-time cashier, scooped up two onions for $1.25 to make a sofrito, or sauce, for her stew that night. She said that she cannot afford her neighborhood supermarket — where three peppers can cost $7 — and instead scours a half-dozen ethnic food stores every week for fresh onions, peppers and cilantro. “I look at everything, I check it,” she said. “I’m not going to give something old to my kids.”
Sometimes, the freshest produce on the bus, like blue potatoes, turnips and beets, is not popular with those who do not know what is, let alone how to cook it.
Reinaldo Irizarry, the man with the umbrella, fingered the blue potatoes but hastily put them back when he saw their dark color inside. “I’ve never seen it like that,” said Mr. Irizarry, 68, a retired welder. “If I bring it home, my wife’s going to kill me.” Ms. Fields told him to take two blue potatoes to try for free. She took down his name and number, promising to call when she had red potatoes in stock.
The mobile market has gotten off to a slow start this winter. The 40-foot bus had to be jump-started in the cold weather. Some days, it did not turn on at all. About $250 worth of fruits and vegetables had to be composted after they spoiled or became frostbitten before they could be sold or given away, Ms. Fields said.
Then there are the big, green leaves on the side of the bus.
“People stop me and ask me if I’m selling weed,” Ms. Fields said with a laugh. “There’s so much work to be done.”
article by Winnie Hu via nytimes.com