HUNTS POINT — Tanya Fields, a food-justice activist, knows all too well the great irony of her neighborhood.
While Hunts Point is home to one of the world’s largest produce distribution centers that teems with farm-fresh, restaurant-quality fruits and vegetables, much of the produce that ends up in nearby groceries and is sold to residents is terrible.
Fields has posted online photos and complained to store managers about waxed apples with mushy insides, potatoes that rot as soon as they’re taken home and what she calls “Diva Strawberries" — ones covered in “fur coats” of mold.
“I don’t consider it a food desert,” said Fields, 32. “It’s a food swamp. There’s a lot of food here — it’s just not very good.”
So Fields, who runs a food-justice and jobs program and recently hosted a just-food conference at The Point, came up with an idea.
She and her partners want to transport fresh produce from a sustainable upstate farm to the South Bronx, where they’ll sell it on street corners, all the while educating residents about the food system and providing solid jobs.
And, just to make sure no one confuses this for any old farm stand, the "Veggie Mobile Market" will operate out of a playfully painted former school bus that runs on vegetable oil.
“This project is about food, but it is about so much more,” Fields wrote in her online funding campaign. “It will change the way we see ourselves in our community. It will use food as an empowerment tool!"
The idea sprouted at an urban farm school where Fields met Jalal Sabur, who now works full-time at Wassaic Community Farm in Dutchess County. Farmers there use organic methods to raise about 50 types of vegetables and herbs, which they sell at a South Bronx farmers market and through a farm-share program.
The farm donated a small, white school bus with painted sides, nicknamed Sugar Cube, which had previously belonged to a touring poetry crew. Because it runs on vegetable oil, the bus' operating costs and carbon footprint are negligible.
“Transportation is a large part of the food system,” said Sabur, 33. “So with the veggie bus, it’s a win-win. You get food to the people without any toxins.”
The market will dish out affordable seasonal produce — apples, strawberries, kale, cucumbers and lettuce — along with cooking and medicinal herbs. It will also sell some prepared products, such as coconut oil, organic maple syrup and made-to-order smoothies.
While most of those goods will come from Wassaic, eventually Fields would like to source from The Bronx’s many urban farms.
Initially, the plan is to rotate the bus around three South Bronx neighborhoods: Hunts Point, Mott Haven and Highbridge.
While locals shop in the converted bus, Fields envisions free cooking demos, blood-pressure screenings and even children’s hula-hoop classes outside it. And she plans to team with a local workforce development group to recruit workers, whom she promises to pay at least $12 an hour with some benefits.
“I want it to become a staple in the neighborhood,” Fields said.
She added that she applied for, and expects to receive, a $20,000 grant from the Simón Bolívar Foundation for administrative costs. She is also hoping to raise another $15,000 online to transform the bus into a mobile market.
That would buy solar-powered heaters and coolers, storage units, blenders and a new transmission.
The fundraiser, which had generated about $2,400 as of Thursday morning, will end May 24. The goal is to launch the market in June.
The bus, as Fields sees it, is just the first leg of a march back to the future of the food system — away from corporations and towards communities producing and selling food that is healthy, eco-friendly and just.
“We can have direct control of getting these alternatives to our community,” Fields said. “Then, hopefully, we can stop calling them alternatives in a couple years and just have them be the norm.”