Jul 11, 2019 — Farmers’ markets. When spring comes, you can see them pop up across the North Country.
That’s why a non-profit in Malone – The Joint Council for Economic Opportunity of Clinton and Franklin Counties – is reaching underserved communities, by putting their farmers’ market on wheels.
It’s early morning in Malone and workers at the JCEO food center are loading two mini-buses with fresh vegetables. Today, these markets on wheels are making three stops. Inside the kitchen, Dick LaVigne makes sure no food is left behind. He is JCEO’s food services director.
There’s still some lettuce there. It’s the last thing workers load into the buses, keeping it fresh over a bed of ice.
“We bring that over every morning. We go and chop from the greenhouse, bring it over here and finish chopping it up and have it prepped for the bus and that will go on our salad bar,” LaVigne said.
He worked in the restaurant business for more than 40 years. He has white hair, green eyes, and the energy of a younger man. Now, he directs food production for the non-profit, overseeing two greenhouses, four gardens and the mobile farmers’ market program.
He is eager to show me their greenhouses. As soon as we enter, he starts pointing at different crops. Cucumbers, radishes…
“Then we have leaf lettuce over here, and we’ve got romaine over here, and we’ve got broccoli growing right there,” LaVigne said.
And they’re expanding. There’s construction happening next-door thanks to a grant from the Adirondack Health Institute. Two much bigger greenhouses mean more food production. That’s big for JCEO, because in addition to their mobile farmers’ market program, they also distribute food to over 20 food pantries in the region.
After the tour, it was go time.
As I ride with LaVigne, just behind the mini-bus, he tells me the how the mobile farmers’ market started. He’d been brainstorming with Andrea Goff of the North Country Healthy Heart Network a new program. One that would expand access to healthy food for underserved communities.
And then, one day, it hit him. JCEO had a minibus that was just parked there, not being used.
“And i said to her, ‘you know i can convert that bus over and we can have a mobile farmers’ market, what do you think of that?,” LaVigne said.
Goff said that was a great idea, and so they did it. The mobile market is now in its second year. The mini-buses have bins filled with vegetables, a table for chocolate-chip cookies and pies, and its most popular feature: A refrigerated salad bar.
The great thing about a mobile farmers’ market is you can take it almost anywhere. But today, there’s a catch. The weather isn’t great. As we arrived at Akwesasne, it was pouring rain. But people still showed up.
Clarissa Chatland was one of them.
“If I can just walk out a few steps and grab an awesome salad that’s fresh and grab some fresh vegetables for supper tonight, makes it easier on me,” Chatland said. She lives in Akwesasne, and says there aren’t many places around to buy fresh vegetables. “We’re right in the middle between Massena and Malone so it’s a good 20-minute drive to Massena or a 20-minute driver to Malone. So, if they can come to us once a week and get fresh vegetables, they have an array of assortment so that’s awesome.”
And that is the point of the program – expanding access. LaVigne says different people, from county officials to community organizers, have asked him to bring the mobile market to their communities.
One of them was the United Methodist Church in Lyon Mountain, a small hamlet in Clinton County.
“And they said, ‘We guarantee you we’ll get all of our parishioners to buy from you if you come to our church, because we have no access to fresh vegetables in our little town of Lyon Mountain.’ Which they don’t. there’s no stores,” LaVigne said.
And so, this year, the mobile market will head there. It will also visit other remote communities like Braindarsville, Owl’s Head, Whippleville, Fort Covington.
For Andrea Goff, teaming up with Lavigne was a success. And she says that’s not only because of where they are selling the vegetables, but how: letting low-income families use their government food subsidies.
“We hear people talk about how they haven’t had any place to use their mobile market vouchers or farmers’ market vouchers and they have that now. This small communities where they wouldn’t have access to fresh produce, they now have access,” Goff said.
With increasing food production in their greenhouses, Lavigne and Goff are hoping their experiment on wheels will keep growing. One vegetable, and one small community at a time.