A Mobile Market Finds Its Way
Written onDecember 07 , 2012
A little after 10:00 a.m. on a chilly October morning in Newport, the traffic at the intersection of Main street and Coventry street is as steady as usual. Traffic lights turn, some cars move, others stop; the rhythm of routine here is strong.
But at the edge of this routine, along the curb, Meghan Stotko is doing something eye-catching: building a multi-tiered display of local food that’s part billboard, part art installation. In front of a large white truck, she fills sap buckets and bushel baskets with potatoes and tucks them between the steps of a wooden ladder. She stacks towers of winter squash like firewood. She arranges bunches of red kale between half pints of farmers’ cheese that rest next to loaves of warm bread from the bakery down the street.
Meghan is the market manager for The Lunchbox, a new mobile farmers’ market and commercial kitchen launched by Green Mountain Farm-to-School that aims to bring fresh food from dozens of local producers, along with food education, to low-income and limited-food areas around the Northeast Kingdom. The project began in Newport in September with weekly pop-up markets in the parking lot of a local bank and has ambitions to also have market days in Irasburg, North Troy, and Island Pond. But more than a market alone, The Lunchbox hopes to be a mobile toolbox for anyone in the area to use to improve their access to healthy food and community programs.
“Rutabaga may be really unfamiliar and foreign to people,” says Katherine Sims, executive director of Green Mountain Farm-to- School and project manager for The Lunchbox. “They may not want to buy it without knowing how to prepare it and knowing that it tastes good and that it’s cheap and simple. So I see our commercial kitchen as a demonstration kitchen. You can try butternut squash soup, get excited about it, take home the recipe, and the raw product to make it at home.”
The communities The Lunchbox expects to serve were chosen based on their exceptional need for affordable fresh food. According to USDA data, Newport is part of a multi-county “food desert,” where nearly 40 percent of people have low access to such foods. The data focuses on two barriers—cost and transportation—so the The Lunchbox’s thesis seems perfectly logical: bring food to people where they are, at a price they can afford, and they’ll choose to buy healthy local products. By putting the market on wheels and setting it up at established gathering points within each community, such as senior centers, The Lunchbox cuts transportation challenges out of the equation. Furthermore, it brings down the cost of local food by accepting food stamps and Harvest Health coupons, which match food stamp purchases up to $10.
“We’re trying to make sure that the local food movement is about food access for everyone,” Katherine says. “We’re not forgetting about people up in Island Pond and North Troy who aren’t banging on our doors asking for this because they don’t feel like it’s a movement for them.”
On paper, it seems like The Lunchbox would expect a messianic welcome wherever it travels. As the project's initial market manager, I also expected that the 31-foot-long, FedEx-style step-van hand-painted with a colorful logo would have little problem announcing itself.
But it only takes a couple of hours standing in the parking lot of a bank with your hands in your pockets and hail falling around you to wonder what the facts, figures, and programs that got you there really mean to the people you’re looking to serve—people who are looking at you, and the food displays behind you, with glances that say what numbers can’t. Furrowed brows want to know what “that thing” is. Squinting eyes try to piece together “T-H-E L-U-N-C-H-B….” And all of those shuffling feet that hesitate for a moment when they notice the truck just keep on shuffling.
“You offer all these things and the whole equation is in place to make it affordable and the incentives are there and everything else, but how do you actually get people out from their home and into the market?” Meghan asks. “You can’t just show somebody or tell them what they need to do—say to someone, ‘Buying this will make you healthy.’ You have to show how it’s feasible.”
In the Northeast Kingdom, where more than $500 million in redevelopment plans were recently announced by Jay Peak’s Bill Stenger—along with the promise of thousands of new jobs—the question of how a major investment in a well-intentioned project such as The Lunchbox translates into real improvements in peoples’ lives is a hot one. The Lunchbox itself is supported by a two-year, $97,000 grant from the USDA’s Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, most of which helped purchase the truck and outfit it with a commercial kitchen. It took most of the first year to get the market on the road, and with few customers in the first month of business, it’s natural to begin searching for a possible mismatch between perceived needs and people’s actual response. But Katherine and Meghan are proceeding with poise, open minds, and a humbled appreciation for the nuances of the project at hand.
“It’s all very simple, except for the fact that it’s very complicated,” jokes Meghan, who admits that she has spent more time learning how to operate the truck’s generator and install its equipment than selling food. “Once one market was open, the act of buying the food, coordinating with farmers, figuring out a financial situation, accounting, record keeping, installing equipment in the truck….I mean all of those things add up to a lot of time in ways you don’t necessarily expect. But this is just a little nugget of what we’ll be able to do in the future.”
What’s been a little more immediate for The Lunchbox has been finding a way to make the program work for the growers who supply it. The Lunchbox buys all of its product outright from producers at their retail price, without adding a markup of their own—meaning that the 100 percent of the price Lunchbox customers pay goes back to the grower or producer. Many of these producers are new growers in their 20s or older backyard gardeners who don’t have enough food to justify their own farmers’ market booth; The Lunchbox can offer a new entry point into the local food market for these super-small-scale growers. Some producers have also benefited from using The Lunchbox’s commercial kitchen to preserve excess harvest and make a viable product to sell at farm stands or markets that wouldn’t accept home-processed foods.
Adam Favaloro is one such producer. He is one half of Four Acre Farm, a diversified veggie farm in Barton that he opened this past season with his best friend from third grade. Two of their melons sat on the market table, waiting for buyers, the day I spoke to him.
“We’re so limited on person power that we can only go to so many markets per week, so the idea that this goes all around the Kingdom is great,” he said. “It’ll get our name and our product out to towns we’re not marketing to directly. It’s a lot of good publicity for growers.”
While this doesn’t add up to a steady revenue stream for the market portion of The Lunchbox, Meghan expects to be able to fund the project beyond the USDA grant by marketing The Lunchbox as a unique farm-to-table catering service and food truck for special events. She also plans to eventually offer a menu of freshly prepared foods during market day.
But first, there’s a pensive winter to get through and lessons from this pilot season to sculpt into a project that meaningfully reaches the people it’s attempting to serve. Drawing on her background as a chef, as well as on Green Mountain Farm-to-School’s educational resources, Meghan will spend the winter developing a meal plan and classes for Lunchbox shoppers. The classes will show how a family of between four and six can supplement store-bought staples with produce from The Lunchbox to create a week’s worth of affordable, healthy meals. She also plans to spend time doing outreach to existing partner organizations and people in market communities so that come spring, communities will better understand what The Lunchbox is about and how it can be useful.
“The day-to-day of the local food movement isn’t so sexy,” Katherine says. “It’s a lot of hard work and it doesn’t happen overnight, but we keep knocking on doors and people are excited. And that’s what keeps us moving forward. If the food is yummy, people will come. If it looks good and it’s exciting and inviting, people want to come and learn about it and if they like what they learn, they’ll keep coming back. Part of that is persistence, and reaching out and inviting people to come and check it out and be offering a good thing when they do.”
It all adds up to a brave and innovative attempt to address not just one, but many of the most intimate and intricate challenges in our food system, in a way that apparently no one else has tried in such a thoroughly rural environment. Although The Lunchbox won’t be bragging about its sales this season, it can be proud of crafting an innovative approach to improving food access that acknowledges the complexity of the problem. Even if it experiences some early struggles, those struggles are refreshing because they represent an ongoing attempt to not just provide more food to more people, but to fundamentally reskill people, reconnect people, and address food access not just as an economic issue, but also as a cultural issue, and ultimately, a personal issue.
To what extent one project can affect so many facets of peoples’ lives remains to be seen. But as she dismantles a day’s display of produce among the traffic of downtown Newport, Meghan sees the frontier ahead. And if The Lunchbox is ever going to get there, she sees you joining her.
“You’re kind of forging out into the unknown,” she says, “and in doing so, there are a lot of things…that aren’t going to happen in the best way, that are only going to be learned about in hindsight. I would like the support of everyone in the communities we work with to positively channel feedback back to this truck and be on its side and just know that it’s a work in progress and that it’s open to being a work in progress with those communities, that that’s it’s nature. That’s a pretty important thing.”