CTA buses are often packed like sardines. But one retired vessel from the CTA fleet is packed to the gills with produce.
Once on board, you’ll find everything from pineapples, to mangoes, to collard greens, to onions. Last Thursday, a line formed around the bus’ first stop of the day – the Herbert Spencer Math and Science Academy in Austin. The bus, dubbed the “Fresh Moves Mobile Produce Market,” might just be the perfect ‘vehicle’ to alleviate food deserts.
Large portions of the city’s South and West Sides do not have access to grocery stores with fresh food options. A major study done in 2006 on Chicago’s food deserts found that residents in these locations faced higher risk of illness and even premature death.
“All of these communities are saturated with the junk food, the fatty food, and we have to counter that,” said Fresh Moves organizer Dara Cooper. “We make this assumption that young people don’t like healthy food. I don’t make that assumption.’’
Eighth grader Perriyala Clay displays considerable enthusiasm when probed on the subject.
“My favorites are blueberries, but right now I’m thinking about apples,” she said.
Kids won’t have any problem making the right food choices on this bus. Apples are in abundance. We also found other fresh items like tomatoes, lettuce, and even kale. It’s a lot like the produce aisle at the grocery store, but not just any produce aisle. A lot of the items here are organic and locally grown.
“Being able to bring organic fresh fruits and vegetables, organic produce to the community, having them come to you rather than you going to it solves this short term problem of food deserts,” said Steve Casey, who first conceived of the idea four years ago with his business partner Jeff Pinzino.
Initially, he says, they wanted to build a grocery store in a food desert. But Casey says it wasn’t economically feasible. So he floated another idea – and approached a certain city agency.
“I asked them a crazy idea. Would you donate a bus to help us do a farmer’s market on wheels? They thought about it for a year,” said Casey.
The CTA decided to sell Casey the bus – for 1$. Then, the conversion began.
“We had a design company build custom designed shelves with cargo netting. We won’t let anything fall off the shelves,” said Casey.
The crew stocks the bus each morning with produce from wholesale markets and other sources.
“We have a mixture of locally grown suppliers as well…green youth farms. We’re also partnering with Pembroke family farmers,” said Cooper.
The bus is a welcome arrival for community residents, like Kelly Williamson.
“I bought lettuce, apples, pears and watermelons,” she said.
Williamson says those are items she doesn’t regularly find in Austin.
“We have to travel out to the suburbs sometimes to get fresh fruits, and when we get them, they’re not fresh,” she said.
“The reality is we’re in a community that has been neglected and disenfranchised,” said Cooper. “We believe these communities need to be serviced, invested in and believed in.”
The bus stops in Austin and Lawndale every Wednesday and Thursday. The organization hopes to soon expand its fleet and roll into every community that could use a fruit and a vegetable or two.