Organic produce and farmers market foods can come at a pretty steep price. First-year FNPP student Kelly Cara has the scoop on an initiative that helps low-income families bring this nutritious fare to their tables.
Every Friday afternoon from 1-3, on a grassy neighborhood corner in Dorchester, you can find Phil Messier setting out crates of produce under a small tent. Vibrant strawberries in little green baskets and plump blueberries cresting the tops of their cartons draw the attention of neighborhood kids walking home from school with their mothers. One taste of those organic, locally-grown berries, and even customers who claim not to like strawberries will end up buying a pint. “If you can get a kid on his own to say a strawberry is just as good as candy, my work is done!” says market employee, Michael Leidig, a registered dietitian who spent the last eight years establishing the Center for Youth Wellness at the Floating Hospital for Children in Boston. “When you allow customers to taste ‘real’ fresh-from-the-farm food, it tastes awesome on its own.
The Trustees Mobile Farmers Market preserves the “distinct character of our communities” by bringing the riches from the farm to under-served populations in some of Boston’s low-income communities. First-time customers at the mobile market will typically see Messier, the Mobile Market Manager, approach with a smile and a friendly announcement that all the produce is organic and 50% off standard farmers market prices. That’s right! Fresh field sweet corn for just fifty-cents an ear, organic zucchini and crisp Macintosh apples for $1.50 a pound, and those blueberries are a mere $4.00 per pint. In the short two-hour window that the market appears on Fridays, many local residents will stop by for the high-quality produce which can be bought with cash, credit, SNAP/EBT, WIC, and even Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) benefits.
A woman in a wheelchair with four children in tow grabs a few plastic bags and begins filling them with produce. As she approaches the food truck to weigh her selections and pay, Leidig informs her that with a SNAP card, she can use HIP benefits to get up to $80-worth of fruits and vegetables fully reimbursed each month (benefits range from $40-$80 per month depending on the size of the household). With this news about essentially free food of such high quality, she decides to take the first bags home and return for a second round to redeem her benefits. According to Leidig, “What’s really meaningful about the Food Market is customers gain a sense of empowerment. They feel like they are treated well and not getting leftovers.”
This little farm stand wasn’t always a stand and had a bit of a rough start. In 2017, its inaugural year, Messier would load up with fruits, veggies, meat, milk, and eggs and sell directly out of the truck in three low-income neighborhoods. The market only brought in about $12k that first year. After a serendipitous accident tore the side panel window flap off the truck, Messier and his team decided to sell the produce from a tent instead. By enabling neighborhood residents to see the products more easily and interact freely with their selections, they began buying much more. With an additional five stops added to the route, Messier expects sales to be over $40k this year.
All proceeds go to Powisset Farm which sits on 109 acres of farmland protected by the Trustees of Reservations. According to the 2017 annual report, Trustees is “one of the largest private holders of farmland in the Commonwealth. We maintain seven working farms, home to 56 acres of vegetable production, along with 460 laying hens, 31 milking cows, 45 pigs, and 125 beef cattle.” The Trustees Mobile Farmers Market project utilizes what is grown on this farmland and procures supplemental items, such as those Macintosh apples, from other local farms like Verrill Farm in Concord and Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon. In addition to the produce, fresh eggs and meat are brought in from Moose Hill Farm in Sharon, and dairy products, such as cheese and milk, come from Appleton Farm in Ipswich.
The corner of Dorchester where Messier sells on Fridays is only a stone’s throw from a big Stop & Shop market, so why would a mobile market set up shop here? Messier claims that “grocery stores sell zombie foods. We’re providing the best food at a price people can afford.” The abundance of fresh fruit and the unique varieties of vegetables at his Mobile Market–hot peppers, purple and white streaked fairytale eggplants, softball-sized heirloom tomatoes, hearty Boston lettuce–are what draw customers back every week. “We want poor people to expect good food in their grocery bags and in their kitchens. We want them to feel like they deserve good food,” he adds. Leidig put it this way: “Economically disadvantaged individuals are particularly challenged given a multitude of factors including chronic stress that can severely restrict one’s ability to focus on a basic human need and right—access to nutrient-rich, great tasting, locally sourced and sustainable food to make our community healthier.”
As a nonprofit organization, Trustees has numerous opportunities for volunteering and donations. Messier invites students of Tufts Friedman School to get involved. “We’d love to have Friedman students come volunteer on the truck! We always need people talking to customers and potential customers about what we do. Volunteers are more than welcome, and I’ll give them free fruits and veggies.” As always, with a good sense of humor and a smile on his face, he adds, “They’re also welcome to visit Powisset Farm, or even volunteer at Powisset. The farm crew is shorthanded, and two of them fell in love last month, so production is down.”
Kelly Cara is a first-year FNPP student and recently moved to Boston from Austin, TX. She is interested in researching the health impact of specific dietary patterns that incorporate various levels of food processing. She comes to Tufts after working for eight years in the field of experimental psychology and higher education research and four years in the culinary field as a health supportive chef and instructor.