Fresh lettuce sits atop the Arcadia Food table at the inaugural festivities of a Farmers Market in Southwest D.C. Arcadia Food works to expand access to locally grown produce by selling the fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and running educational programs.
Subsisting on canned goods
Jana Baldwin's kitchen in Northwest D.C. is stuffed with canned foods and frozen vegetables she bought with her food stamps. They are the only things that will keep. Besides a few apples in the fridge, there is hardly any fresh produce to be seen.
"Canned corn, canned peaches, my favorite is canned green beans. I will just eat whatever it is that I have in the house so if that’s just canned beans and a hot dog, that's fine," she says. "I'm not starving. But it would be better to have the food groups that would be necessary to be more healthy."
And why doesn't this LeDroit Park resident just go down to the local grocery store?
"There is none, zero, nothing in LeDroit Park proper," she says.
Addressing D.C.'s 'food deserts'
Baldwin lives in one of the District's food deserts, defined by the the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a neighborhood more than a mile away from a large grocery store. Large portions of Wards 4,5,7, and 8 in D.C. are in such places, and the lack of access to fresh, nutritious foods can lead to significant health problems in populations.
"When people don't have access to healthy food like fruits and vegetables ... you can see spikes in diet related illnesses such as diabetes, heart related diseases, nutrition, cancers and obesity," says Alexandra Ashbrook, director of the nonprofit organization D.C. Hunger Solutions.
But supporters of local agriculture say that doesn't have to be a community's fate. Arcadia Foods, a small organization that works to bring fresh produce from fields of local farms to the dinner plates of D.C. residents, has launched a new farmers market in Southwest D.C. to prove this theory.
And now, Arcadia founder Mike Babin -- also the owner of several restaurants around the D.C. area -- hopes to bring the concept into other food deserts by putting farmers markets like this one on wheels.
Arcadia launches roving market bus
"We've got a bus and we're calling it the mobile market that is going to be outfitted as a farmers market," Babin says. "It's going to roll into these communities and set up shop for one day a week to just provide that food to those communities."
The bus is just your average yellow school bus. But Babin plans to retrofit it soon to carry some 50 crates of fresh produce like lettuce, kale, carrots, and asparagus. And it wont just carry vegetables. The plan is to also make the bus run on them: vegetable oil with a blend of diesel.
"It's great having this kind of bus rolling around town bringing great local food into communities that need it," he says.
Babin is hoping to sell the food at prices below the normal farmers market levels by securing grants and donations. But even with the cost savings, there's no guarantee that the many people already accustomed to the packaged and canned food diet will actually take advantage of the produce.
"Well I'm confident that they will eventually," he says. "But I’m realistic and we're realistic about whether that will happen immediately." Babin says they hope to whip up interest by meeting with community leaders and making educational visits to schools.
Changing diets by changing minds
The first planned stop will be in Jana Baldwin's neighborhood of LeDroit Park in July, where community leader Keenan Dunson says demand is high for fresh fruits and vegetables.
"I believe there is an interest and that people when shown what can come out of the ground and what can come onto their plate will be interested and have been interested," says Dunson.
Dunson helped start a community farm in the area, the Common Good City Farm. But that alone doesn't provide enough fresh produce for the entire neighborhood. Just a block down the road, Baldwin is intrigued by the mobile market idea, but still has a pinch of skepticism.
"I think that it would have to be marketed appropriately. I think many people would think that it would only be for a special population so I think it would have to be marketed in a way that was inclusive to all communities," she says.
Babin's plan is one of many that have cropped up to address food deserts in D.C. But most only serve as a short term fix. Babin says getting grocery stores with affordable produce into more low income neighborhoods is the ultimate goal.
Until then, people like Jana will have to do anything they can to stock their kitchen with food.
"There are times when you just buck up and you just carry your groceries," she says. "... That's what you do. I mean ... you gotta eat."
And knowing that others in her neighborhood are less well off, Jana counts herself as one of the lucky ones.