Mobile Farmers' Market Feeds a Community

Roasted beet salad, fresh local spinach and scallions sound like menu details from an upscale restaurant.  They're what's new this spring at the cafeteria of Takoma Regional Hospital in Greeneville, Tennessee.  Chef Mary Goldman is excited to include some fresh, local produce for the first time this year.  A chef getting a say over wholesale food orders for her kitchen is harder than it sounds.  "There were some bureaucratic roadblocks we had to go through," Goldman admits.  It was the soft sell approach that finally won over hospital executives.  Goldman just happened to include an abundant pick of the local spinach crop when the hospital was holding a special community luncheon.  Goldman stressed to decision makers that serving fresher foods would fit well with the hospital's emphasis on wellness.  "I said, 'look this is what we could be serving in the cafeteria.'"

Market Manager Rhonda Hensley
The farm fresh foods now being served at the hospital come mostly from a unique Mobile Farmers' Market run by Rural Resources.  The weekly picks are available not only to industry clients like the hospital, but to individuals and families.  On the morning that I caught up with Market Manager Rhonda Hensley, she was busily driving her route through Greeneville.

Hensley steers a converted short schoolbus painted like a red barn and sells community supported agriculture or CSA baskets directly to customers who've preordered.  At one customer pickup site, a married mother of two is excited to try the program for the first time.  "It's hard to find organic around Greeneville," the mother says.  She's paying  $25 for a half-bushel family share basket that this week includes beets so fresh you could eat the leafy tops too, vine-ripened strawberries, dill, radishes, eggs from free range hens and more.  

Kathy Kolb picks up her CSA basket
Kathy Kolb is picking up a cash CSA basket because she's decided to eat vegetarian, and this fits into her eating plan. She read about the Mobile Farmers' Market in the newspaper. "I'll be staying with this through the summer, 'cause I've been waiting on vegetables to come out."  Baskets start at just $15.

Customers who use the public Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP are also making a healthier choice by purchasing from the Mobile Market.  Hensley says SNAP customers are steadily increasing, and she's equiped to handle SNAP orders.  The Market offers an extra service to those who can't drive.  On this week, the red bus took a cash order to an elderly woman living in public housing.  Hensley took a moment o chat with her and offered to put the groceries in her refrigerator.

Hensley says that even if a customer doesn't specify organic and it comes from small producers who can't afford a USDA Organic seal, most of the produce is grown to organic guidelines or better.  "Our farmers take really great pride in their produce.  And it just so happens that most of our farmers are ladies.  Many more women are getting into farming because they care.  They care what their children eat.  They care what their families eat, so they're starting to grow their own food."  Hensley is so enthusiastic about sharing quality produce, that she insists I taste one of the fresh picked strawberries.  Yes, they really are as scrumptious as they look!

Some growers are as young as 12 or 13 years old, some are elderly, all are local and interested in sustainable growing practices.  Hensley understands how Rural Resources is creating a vital link between growers and customers.  "We want the farmers to keep growing for us."  She's thrilled that the program can pay small farmers a fair price for their produce and keep the cost to consumers competitive with similar quality foods at a store.  In addition to supporting established farmers, Rural Resources teams at-risk youth with volunteers to teach farm and garden skills.  The program offers a sustainable alternative to so much processed, shelved food that's become common in American diets.

A combination of public grants and private support has kept the Rural Resources program going in Northeast Tennessee.  Americorps has been funding Hensley's salary, but a funding cut has taken away the part-time assistant who previously helped her.  The Market received a grant last year from the Presbyterian Hunger Assistance Program, and relies on a variety of funding and volunteer sources.  The bus is in need of some maintenance.  Since a fire in 2009, the program is housed in a temporary building. 

For a program in need of more financial support, there's no lack of enthusiasm.  Despite the challenges, the customer list is getting longer, and Hensley says she's excited to "sell, sell, sell," because she sees good things happening at Rural Resources.  When I ask if the local schools are buying Greeneville produce for the children, she gets a twinkle in her eye, and she resists telling me too many details about how close that is to happening.  This friendly woman says her involvement in the Mobile Farmers' Market started five years ago, as an act of faith.  "Everyone wants to eat healthy and fresh," she says with a smile.  It's evident she'll keep doing everything she can to nourish the people of her community.

Readers in the Northeast Tennessee area can use this link to place online market orders and inquire about pickup locations.  Rural Resources plans on putting up a new website soon explaining more ways that anyone can help support the program.

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