Stephen Eirich spent his summer driving around the communities near Andrews University, offering fresh produce at affordable prices. He agreed to tell us about the experience.
Question: You are the coordinator for the new mobile farm market run by the Andrews University Student Gardens. Can you tell us a little bit about the concept?
Answer: The Student Gardens at Andrews has been growing a lot over the last three years (pun not intended). We've begun going through the organic certification process and have started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in 2012 that is now serving over 45 families. After receiving a grant from the state of Michigan this winter, the Mobile Farm Market is our most recent addition.
Working with a bunch of other local organizations, Andrews University received a grant to put fresh produce in the hands of those with otherwise poor access to healthy food. This has taken the form of a mobile farm market stand set up in seven food deserts in Berrien County each week.
Question: So you are essentially looking to provide food to people in low-income areas who may not have easily accessible, affordable grocery stores. Have you found the interest in your service to be very high in these areas? Is your produce available to anyone, or only to people below a certain income level?
Answer: That's right. We sell to anyone that visits our stand without asking for any kind of background information, and take cash and credit as well as Bridge Card (Michigan's electronic benefits transfer program). Some people are very excited to see their favorite vegetables for sale at such a good price in their neighborhood. Others don't recognize most of what we have and are only interested in the fruit. One of the most interesting things I've seen is this dynamic between generations; often the older folks in the community take this opportunity to explain a vegetable to a younger person who has never had it.
Question: Tell us more about the business model. Is it a subscription service? Do customers get to choose what they want, or is it whatever you have harvested that week? Is it the same as a CSA box scheme?
Answer: The Student Gardens does operate a CSA program, but for this summer that is separate from the Mobile Market. At each stop, we haul out our tables, canopy, and baskets of produce, and wait for customers to stop by just like other farm stands you see along the road. Customers then are free to pick as much as they want of anything we have on display. The really unique aspect is that we drive into the neighborhood, instead of limiting ourselves to a stand right by our field or to a grocery store. Each of our stops is right next door to people's homes. There has been talk of expanding our CSA program to reach this same audience, but that is still under discussion.
Question: So you received a grant from the state of Michigan to make the mobile farm market possible? Is the business sustainable?
Answer: Yes we did. And it's a good thing! This summer we have not been able to break even. However, our goal is for this project to become sustainable over the next several years. There are several hurdles we'll have to overcome in order to do so, and many ways we'll need to make our own operations more efficient.
As any business, though, we recognize that the first few months are rarely profitable. Returning to the same locations year after year, becoming a dependable presence, will hopefully make us a bigger part of the lifestyles of people in the neighborhoods we visit. Until that day comes, the market will continue to be an educational experience for our students and interns, and will continue to build bridges within our community.
Question: Do you know any other Adventist schools running similar programs?
Answer: I’m not aware of any other of our schools operating a mobile market like this. However, I know of several academies with really solid gardens programs, and there seems to be a resurgence in agriculture at some of our schools.
Question: The mobile farm market will only run during the summer, is that right? How did you feel the first season went? What was really successful? What could you do better?
Answer: Yes, we have just one more week, as we finish up on September 19. It has been a fantastic season. Even though we didn't meet our financial goals, we've been able to get the word out and meet a lot of people that will help us continue next summer with a solid community presence.
My favorite part of the season has been connecting with people from the churches, resource centers, and schools that hosted us at each of our stops. We've been able to get comfortable in the neighborhoods we're visiting, and several people at each stop consistently stop by to shop or just chat. Next year, we'd like to improve the amount of community engagement we can offer at the stand, perhaps by bringing other farmers in or hosting special events. We'd also love to see produce from the stand become a staple for the summer diets of the people in our neighborhoods. We'll continue adjusting prices and times to make our produce as convenient and affordable as possible.
Question: You graduated from Andrews last May, and have been working full-time this summer as the mobile farm coordinator. What will you do in the winter?
Answer: That’s the question I'm asking myself right now! I really hope to stay in the area. Especially after this summer, it seems like this is where I can have the biggest impact. It's also where my church community is. I've been reading a book called The Intentional Christian Community Handbook by David Janzen, and a dream of mine is to live closer to my church and the people I worship with —dependent on each other. Right now I'm talking with a few different local groups about how I could make a living while working for the economic development of my community and sharing Jesus, but that's all up in the air right now, so I'll keep it to myself. If anyone knows of any available jobs, please let me know!
Question: How is the job different than you expected it would be? You have done some pretty interesting jobs in the past, including teaching English in Thailand and working with the Stoplight Project to help victims of sex-trafficking. How is it different driving around an ex-FedEx truck carrying vegetables? How have your previous experiences helped you in this job?
Answer: When I look back over the last six years, I'm really grateful to have been able to work with so many incredible people, doing what I felt I needed to do at that time. This job is in many ways a culmination of my college experiences —although this project was never on my radar until last spring, all these other things, like Thailand, Harbor of Hope, and the Stoplight Project, were instrumental in preparing me for this job.
I can't say this has been the least glamorous of my jobs — because it has garnered a lot of publicity — but the day-to-day operations have given me a good sense of the meaning of work and I've had to push myself more for this job than just about any I've had before. I doubt I'll end up working exclusively in the field of food justice, just like I haven't become an ESL teacher after my experience in Thailand, but it has made agriculture a much more significant part of my life that I hope I will be able to incorporate into whatever I do.
Question: Do you feel that the Andrews mobile farm market is replicable? Would you advise other places to try it?
Answer: I do. Our gardens manager, Arthur Mulyono, is doing a lot to design a gardens system that other Adventist schools will be able to adopt. The mobile farm market, naturally, is tied very closely to our garden, so in that sense it depends a lot on the state of a school's garden. And we'll still need some time before we can offer any substantial curriculum or guidebook for starting your own.
But regardless of where the produce is sourced, or even if it is something else entirely, I've learned from several projects that working out of a vehicle can be much more efficient than working out of a building, and I think that is a nearly universal truth. That, I would say, is what should be replicated most. Whether it's a produce stand, book store, or a children's Bible program, taking something on the road, bringing it directly to people's doors and neighborhoods, and making it convenient and relevant, will give you the most bang for your buck. So if you have an idea, try it out. If you don't have a grant (and maybe even if you do), start small, with your personal vehicle — a pickup truck or a minivan — and get out.
Alita Byrd is the editor of the Spectrum Blog.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6253