Mobile Farmers Market Delivers Fresh Produce

Hometown Heroes, People
on April 27, 2008
Earl Neikirk The bus carries farm-fresh produce May through October.

Like a little red barn on wheels, the Mobile Farmers’ Market rumbles into the parking lot of Plaza Towers, a rent-controlled apartment building for senior citizens in Greeneville, Tenn. (pop. 15,198). Several customers wait on benches in the shade, their eyes lighting up as the bus makes its weekly stop.

“It’s the sweetest thing,” says Rhonda Hensley, 44, manager of the mobile market, which operates May through October. “They come out with their walkers and wheelchairs. It’s like the ice cream truck is coming down the street.” Instead of ice cream, the mobile market sells locally grown vegetables, meat and eggs to residents of low-income and elderly housing areas around Greeneville.

Inside the bus, Hensley mists the cabbage, kale and other early season produce displayed in red gingham-lined bins. Prices are competitive with those at a traditional farmers’ market. Hensley’s assistant and driver, Sharon Price, 56, rolls down the awning outside to open the bus for business.

Helen Clements, 82, slowly climbs aboard. “Do you have rhubarb?” she asks. “My mother used to grow that in her garden.”

“No, but I’ll check and let you know about that next week,” Hensley says. Clements and most of the other residents at Plaza Towers don’t drive, so a trip to get groceries is difficult. Some stores deliver, but the produce just isn’t as good, customers say.

“You can tell the difference,” says customer Nancy Belcher, 77, picking from a small pile of okra. “I’m glad they’re here.”

The Mobile Farmers’ Market was created in the summer of 2005 by Rural Resources, a nonprofit organization in Greeneville dedicated to promoting family farms and environmentally friendly farming practices. The organization’s executive director, Sally Causey, originally considered setting up produce stands in low-income neighborhoods, when a friend suggested, “Why don’t you have a farmers’ market on wheels?”

The idea stuck and soon Causey was applying for and receiving grants from the U.S. and Tennessee departments of agriculture to launch the mobile market. The local school system donated a 1991 Chevrolet mini-bus, and volunteers painted it and added a freezer, vegetable bins, air conditioning, and a food stamp card reader.

While sales have increased sixfold since 2005, the government grants have expired, so Hensley advertises aggressively and knocks on doors to drum up business. The bus also visits wealthier sections of town later in the day, often selling out.

“We are really excited to have the Mobile Farmers’ Market up and running,” Causey says. “While sales matter, we are focused on the potential of getting local produce into the hands and mouths of local people, especially in neighborhoods that have previously not had access to locally produced fruits and veggies.”

Farmers hope they succeed. “It’s wonderful to have this,” says Heather Youngblood, a farmer in Afton, Tenn., who sells most of her produce to the bus. “The thing that small farmers are up against is having a place to sell their products.” She says the mobile market is an easy Tuesday morning delivery for her. “Then I can go home and head to the garden.”

After an hour at Plaza Towers, Price starts the Mobile Farmers’ Market engine and heads to a government-subsidized housing area. Hensley takes cabbage and kale to Edith Mullins, 86, who is housebound and in a wheelchair.

“Well, hello there,” Hensley says. In the small, dark apartment, the sight of a visitor brightens Mullins’ face, and Hensley bends down to greet her, ask about her health and listen for a few minutes to a woman who seems hungry mostly for conversation.

As the mobile market heads to its next stop, Hensley reflects for a moment, crediting God for the unique opportunity to help both area farmers and appreciative customers. “I firmly believe it’s the One upstairs,” she says, “because this job fits me to a T.”