Healthy eating strengthens bodies, communities

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 11/30/2011, 8:09 a.m.
Lizette Varela stands on a garden plot at ReVision Urban Farm in Dorchester. Varela works on the farm and...
Lizette Varela stands on a garden plot at ReVision Urban Farm in Dorchester. Varela works on the farm and lives in the ReVision Family Home with her son, JJ. Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

 Miles away from ReVision Urban Farm, a moving truck pulls into a parking space near Franklin Square in the South End. The truck is filled with fresh vegetables — green beans, spinach, lettuce, Chinese cabbage and sweet potatoes — that will be sold at an impossibly low price, $2 for an entire grocery bag of produce.

The truck delivers 40,000 pounds of fresh produce to residents all around Boston each week — produce that otherwise would have been dumped in the trash.

Industrial food suppliers deliver produce to grocery stores and restaurants, but for a variety of reasons —over ordering, not enough space on the delivery truck, cosmetic blemishes in the fruits and vegetables — vast amounts of perfectly good food are never delivered. Instead, it is thrown away while thousands of Bostonians struggle to put food on the table each day.

 Nancy Jamison, a Dorchester resident who formerly worked in the fashion industry, decided she would close the gap between food waste and hunger in Boston by picking up some of the food that was being thrown away and giving it to her neighbors.

As the operation now known as Fair Foods grew, Jamison donated nearly a million dollars of her own money to subsidize the costs of the service since revenues alone could not cover them. Operating on a shoestring budget, Fair Foods spends just $1,200 each week — barely breaking even — to deliver 20 tons of fresh food at 22 sites around the city each week.

As the back of the truck is flipped open, dozens of people rush to get in line, some pushing empty grocery carts or pulling suitcases. For just $2, customers can get a bag of assorted fruits and vegetables, about 10 pounds worth of food, Jamison estimates. In addition, pre-packaged bags of spinach are sold for $1, and crates of free green beans and lettuce are placed on the sidewalk.

Customers can take just a handful of beans or an entire crate. “Don’t be shy — take a whole case of green beans if you want!” one of the volunteers shouted from inside the truck. And the produce is good — it looks exactly like what is stocked in nice grocery stores.

“Haymarket on wheels,” which volunteers call the $2 a bag program, simultaneously remedies the challenges of cost, quality and access. Also taking on these same obstacles, but from a business angle, is Dorchester resident Jenny Silverman.

Silverman, along with other members of the community, are working to start a food cooperative in their neighborhood. Unlike an ordinary grocery store, a co-op is entirely owned and run by the community. Local residents buy equity shares in the co-op in exchange for a vote to elect the board of directors and to determine all matters of the store, but anyone can then shop at the store.

This model, Silverman explained, “allows the community to really control all the decision-making about the market, rather than an outside entity.” As a result, the store will have a genuine “long-term interest in the community.”