The neon-green bus has the same psychedelic feel of Ken Kesey’s Further — that candy-colored school bus in the 1960s designed to pioneer a new kind of (what?) art or hippie lifestyle — but the Mobile Market has a far more concrete mission (and without LSD): It’s spreading fresh produce to so-called food deserts in the District and beyond.
“Two years ago, we decided to focus our time, effort and resources within the arena that we work in every day: the food system,” notes Michael Babin, co-owner of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operates such places as Birch & Barley/ChurchKey, Vermilion and Rustico. “We created Arcadia [Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture] with the goal of improving the outcomes of the food system in the region, for farmers and consumers alike.”
“The Mobile Market was a part of our plans for Arcadia from day one,” Babin said via e-mail. “It not only serves as a physical link between farmers and the areas that lack food access, but it is a visual representation of the better food and nutrition movement that helps raise awareness every time it hits the streets.”
The Mobile Market officially debuts on D.C. streets on Wednesday with visits to the United Medical Center and Common Good City Farm/Ledroit Park.
Benjamin Bartley is Mobile Market’s director, and he’s been the one responsible for getting the necessary permits and licenses and for ensuring that the bus was certified to accept SNAP, WIC and other program coupons. He also had to secure a commercial driver’s license for himself in order to pilot the bus to the desired destinations.
So where will Mobile Market go? The bus has a rather packed schedule that includes Monday stops in Ward 8, Wednesday visits to the aforementioned locations, a tentative Thursday trip to Fort Belvoir and a Saturday home visit to the Arcadia “farm stand” at Woodlawn in Alexandria. Tuesdays will be reserved for hands-on educational trips to schools.
“The offerings are going to be limited for the first couple of weeks,” says Bartley, acknowledging that much of the spring and summer produce is not yet ready.
The Mobile Market expects to have pastured eggs from Helen’s Hens and Arcadia’s own farm; grass-fed ground beef from White House Meats; greens, radishes and herbs from Arcadia; and late-season apples from Kilmer Orchards. “Usually, we’ll have milk,” adds Bartley, but not for these first trips. The milk will come from Moo-Thru in Remington, Va.
Whatever produce the Mobile Market carries, it will be transported via a school bus converted into, essentially, a roving refrigerator. The vehicle has 50 square feet of refrigerator space as well as a freezer and extra coolers when necessary. Fruits and vegetables requiring a cool space will get one on the bus.
The total cost of the Mobile Market came to $32,000, notes NRG spokeswoman Megan Bailey, which includes not only the purchase of the bus but also converting it and outfitting it so the vehicle can run on biodiesel.
Arcadia’s nonprofit status — not to mention the wholesale prices that the group negotiated from third-party suppliers — will allow the Mobile Market to keep costs down. Bartley says the goal is to provide communities with low-cost “foods that [are] pretty accessible and easily prepared.” The Mobile Market team will offer cooking demos and recipes to help those who might not know how to prepare some of the produce.
And whatever the Mobile Market doesn’t sell that day? It’ll peddle the leftover fruits and vegetables to local restaurants, including, of course, those establishments within the Neighborhood Restaurant Group.