It’s pretty quiet at 7 a.m. as Dan Clarke steers a white painted school bus through the back roads of Jamaica Plain. Emptied of the seats that once transported children, the bus has been retrofitted with a row of baskets mounted on one side and a long shelf on the other. It is now Fresh Truck, a mobile market that brings produce and whole grains to neighborhoods across the city that are most severely affected by lack of food access, the greatest percentage of which are low income.
Clarke and Josh Trautwein, recent Northeastern University grads, started the company in April 2012 but did not get the bus on the road until July. They spent their ramp-up time raising money and building partnerships with health centers, schools, and other community organizations. Now they’re on the road daily from early morning till sundown.
The first stop this morning — and every morning — is Crop Circle Kitchen, a shared commissary where Fresh Truck stores produce left at the end of the day that is too good to compost or throw out. “We try to minimize the amount we carry overnight because we want it to be as fresh as possible,” Clarke says. On a recent Wednesday, Annie Feldman, who has been working with Clarke and Trautwein, is in the bus with Clarke when it makes this stop. The two pull out a multilevel rack and pick through the stash, loading everything that’s still good onto the bus.
Then it’s onto the New England Produce Market, also known as Chelsea Market, where, like almost all the markets in the area, Clarke and Trautwein buy most of their produce. “Just because we’re serving lower-income neighborhoods doesn’t mean we’re selling lower quality,” says Clarke. With their lack of overhead, though, the Fresh Truck guys are able to sell their goods at 20 percent less than traditional markets. They are also working on establishing relationships with local growers and hope to expand their product offering as the business develops.
At Chelsea Market, Clarke backs the bus right up to S. Strock & Co. As crates are brought to the bus, Feldman is on board, waiting to load bananas, strawberries, mangoes, blueberries, collard greens, yuccas, garlic, onions, and other goods into the baskets. When the bus pulled in, it was a cavernous space that felt way bigger than any of its passengers remembered from their school days. Cheerily populated now, it is full of vibrant color and fresh aromas.
Trautwein meets the bus at its next stop, Hearth at Olmstead Green in Dorchester, a supportive living community for elders, some who had been homeless. Before the bus arrived, Nancy Dalrymple, the residence coordinator, went door-to-door, reminding residents that it was coming. There is a steady trickle of customers for the hour the bus is parked outside, mostly repeat business. Everyone spends time chatting with Clarke, Trautwein, and Feldman. “We’re thrilled about it,” says Diane, who does not want her last name used. She explains that the closest supermarket is a distant ride away on a bus that comes infrequently, and the fruits and vegetables on Fresh Truck are “a lot fresher.”
“This is such a blessing to the residents, especially now that they accept EBT [food stamps],” notes Leila Walker, personal care homemaker at the residence, who also shops at the bus. “Residents are eating much healthier.”
Joan, another resident who does not want her last name used, says, “For me, it was an answer to a prayer.”
At the next stop, Bridge Boston Charter School, in Dorches-ter, Mark Jameison, who lives in the neighborhood, is another repeat customer. Jameison explains that he recently adopted a vegetarian diet for health reasons but was finding it expensive to maintain. In addition to a serious medical condition, he is lactose- and gluten-intolerant. “I’m on a budget. It’s depressing,” he says. “They want you to be healthy but they don’t make it easy for you.” He says when he first saw the brightly painted bus in the school parking lot, “I thought, ‘I’m saved.’ ”
The last stop of the day is the Gallivan Housing Development in Mattapan. Shoppers come in spurts over a three-hour period. Yucca is popular here, where there are several Latin American customers. One shows Clarke how to tell when the root is ripe — valuable information for next time he goes to market — and explains the best way to cook it.
All along the route, customers want to know when the bus will be back and if it will come every week. The answer is yes.
After a bit of a slow start, Fresh Truck now has a set schedule, with stops in low- and mixed-income neighborhoods that residents can count on.
“As long as a school bus can bring kids to school, we can bring produce to communities,” says Clarke.
FRESH TRUCK For more information, go to thefreshtruck.org.Andrea Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.