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When it’s parked, the FoodShare bus displays lettuce, onions and berries, and more exotic fare such as okra or yuca (cassava). (Laura Berman)
When it’s parked, the FoodShare bus displays lettuce, onions and berries, and more exotic fare such as okra or yuca (cassava). (Laura Berman)

Food truck with a difference: Converted bus brings fresh produce to low-income neighbourhoods Add to ...

Tuxedo Court, Mornelle Court, Neptune Drive, Old Meadow Lane: deserts, all.

Don’t be fooled by lush lawns, trees and access to fresh water; in a food desert, the mirage is the place selling inexpensive, fresh produce among the fast-food outlets and overpriced grocery chains. Trying to assemble ingredients for a good, healthy salad, or filling a pot with enough veggies to feed a big family without breaking the bank, is next to impossible here and, unfortunately, a city as big as Toronto has plenty of them.

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The problem is, they’re invisible to those of us with healthy incomes. On Old Meadow Lane in Lawrence Heights, for example – while it’s only an eight-minute walk to traverse the noisy half-kilometre to Fortino’s at Lawrence Square Shopping Centre – a $20 budget won’t get a low-income person very far. And speaking of far, the 1.3 kilometres to the Metro at Lawrence and Bathurst isn’t worth the half-hour round-trip (which can be a lot longer if you use a walker or have a couple of fussy kids), as the only things one might buy there are items that have been reduced.

“By the time produce is on special there, the quality is so poor,” explains Afua Asantewaa of FoodShare Toronto. “If it’s not a discount grocery store like FreshCo or No Frills, they’re generally not accessible to the residents in the neighbourhoods we serve.”

If only there were a way to get fresh food directly to these dinner-tables-in-the-desert.… That was the conversation in 2012, says Ms. Asantewaa, 45, who co-ordinates FoodShare’s Mobile and Good Food Markets, when the dream was to convert a full-sized TTC bus into a mobile produce market, just like the “Fresh Moves” program in Chicago had done. While FoodShare was getting by using a cube van, staff craved something customized for the task; however, limited real estate and a limited budget soon squashed the full-sized bus plan, and discussion turned to a smaller Wheel-Trans bus.

And while the TTC stepped up and donated one, a major redesign to showcase the fresh wares still had to take place if the new Mobile Good Food Market was to become a reality. To that end, LGA Architectural Partners, headed by the dynamic duo of Janna Levitt and Dean Goodman, came to the rescue and offered their services pro bono.

“This is what we love and motivates us about architecture,” offers Mr. Goodman, who also worked on the converted shipping containers that now make up Market 707 at Scadding Court Community Centre. “It’s not what the particular design is, but more about the critical issue: Can we use our skill to make our city and community a better place to live in.” The bus, the architect continues, should function as a “food stand,” so, with the help of fabricator Crew Chief Conversions, an entire side was cut open and put on hinges to create an awning and create an instant gathering-space.

“The design also offered the opportunity to shop from the inside in inclement weather,” he adds, pointing out that as a former Wheel-Trans bus, ramps for ease of entry and exit were already in place. “Good food is beautiful when displayed well, so when we decided we wanted this to be a feature we worked out the mechanism so one person could fold out the shelves, restock as necessary and display the food so it was attractive.”

It’s true: When parked and fully merchandized, you hardly see the bus. Instead, it’s a visual feast of cascading bins of leafy lettuce, onions and berries, and more exotic fare such as okra or yuca (cassava) to reflect the wide range of ethnicities the bus serves. And, as luck would have it, says Ms. Asantewaa, some items cross international boundaries, which saves money when ordering from the Ontario Food Terminal: “I couldn’t order half a box [of okra]; whether it’s South Asian, West African, or Caribbean people, they all use okra, so it’s worked out really well.”

The 20-per-cent markup, which covers only the bus’s expenses, means $20 can go a very, very long way indeed(in fact, this writer saw quite a few folks fill a bag and get change back from a five). Plus, as with anything food-related, the Mobile Market’s weekly arrival is a great reason to socialize with neighbours and with the affable driver, Dave Perry. On Old Meadow Lane one June evening, a small, chatty crowd gathered around the bus and at the folding table a few metres away (where produce is weighed) well past the dinner-hour. Two men had even set up a chess game under the shade of a tree nearby in order to be part of the buzz.

“And the yam was very nice, bring back more yams,” said a muumuu-clad Jamaican lady to Mr. Perry.

“White yam, right?” he asks, punching a few notes into his iPad. “We can do that.”

“Tonight, I’m going to make vegetarian roti,” says another woman to her neighbour, holding up a colourful bag and matching it with a dazzling smile.

To create more happy scenes – and there are many produce-starved areas begging for service – will require more funding, says Ms. Asantewaa, as putting the bus on the road more than the current two-days-per-week has been difficult.

“Unless we get more funding,” she finishes, “it’s not likely to happen.”

 

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