Farm Truck: a model for supplying fresh produce to New York City’s food deserts
Do you know how many servings of fruits or vegetables you ate in the past 24 hours? If it’s two or more, you’re in the minority. Almost 70 percent of Americans eat one serving or less of fresh produce each day — and the problem is worst in the nation’s poorest communities — especially those labeled “food deserts” because healthy food is often unavailable for purchase. The scarcity of fresh produce in these areas contributes to high rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Jurrien Swarts is in the business of helping people eat healthier. Swarts and his cousin, Seth Holton recently took over the eighth-generation family business: 250-acre Holton Farms in Vermont. The farm produces a full range of products — organic and conventional vegetables, herbs and fruits, as well as foods from livestock. Swarts runs a community-supported agriculture program (CSA) in New York and a mobile farm stand, aptly named, Farm Truck.
The Farm Truck serves affluent areas in New York City where organic tomatoes and fresh kale are easy to come by. But in the past year it has also started setting up shop within the city’s food deserts. More than 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in low-income areas that are at least a mile from a supermarket. In these neighborhoods, convenience stores are the go-to places for groceries. Residents often pay higher prices for lower quality foods — mostly processed starches.
Many attempts to bring fresh produce to these areas have stalled. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive to grow and transport at small scales, so a fair price for the farmer is often too high for the low-income consumer.
The Farm Truck overcomes this problem by offsetting its losses in lower income areas with profits in wealthier ones. It looks for better-off customers who are willing to pay a little more for quality produce (mixed with a social purpose) — a strategy known as cross-subsidization. And because it is on wheels it can reach different groups of customers easily.
Swarts sees the Truck as just one example of many creative efforts being advanced today to address the food desert problem.
Holton Farms has plans to scale up through collaborations with like-minded organizations. Swarts would like to create profitable centralized kitchens that prepare farm-fresh foods for low-income families cafeteria style. Holton Farms also plans to sell healthy microwaveable meals that kids can prepare at home.
For now they are busy applying for additional vending permits, working to grow their customer base, and, of course, preparing for winter!
Photo: Holton Farms