How do you fight hunger–not in some distant, drought-wracked foreign country, but in your own New York City neighborhood? If you’re Tanya Fields, you do it with a mural-painted, music-blasting, school bus full of fresh produce.
Fields is the executive director of the Blk Projek, which has already acquired the bus that will become the South Bronx Mobile Market and had it retrofitted with a vegetable-oil burning engine and the beginnings of a plant-themed paint job. She’s also lined up produce suppliers: Upstate New York’s Wassaic Community Farm (who donated the bus), Corbin Hill Farms and Sky Vegetables’ operation in the Bronx. “It’s an intersection between supporting local farmers and getting food into a community that doesn’t have access to it,” says Fields. And it’s scheduled to hit the streets in the next month.
It is a small, hopeful solution to a set of very large problems. The South Bronx has the highest rate of “food hardship” in the country, with more than one in three residents going hungry at some point last year. It’s a district that is often described as a “food desert”–lacking access to affordable, healthy food–and as the country’s poorest. Fields, for one, is sick of these labels. “I wanted to stop hearing that shit,” she says. “Poverty is not the only thing that comes out of this community.”
At the same time, the real problems underlying these labels are what inspired Fields to get into food activism in the first place. That and an abiding love of food. “I’m a size 18,” she jokes, “Food has always spoken to me.”
Her first foray into food activism was what she calls “guerrilla gardening.” “I had this really bright and naïve idea,” she says. Since the South Bronx had plenty of vacant land, why not just take it over and create a network of urban farms? “I got a very quick lesson in the oppressiveness of city land use policies,” she says. “I started getting harassed by the police, I couldn’t find any elected officials who were interested in stepping up and taking a hard stance.”
While she continued to work on creating farms in the Bronx (now with a more receptive councilwoman) she turned to Google looking for alternative food models for low-income communities. For the bus idea, she gives credit to People’s Grocery in Oakland and groups in upstate New York.
“I’d love to be like ‘I’m the one, this is original,’” she says, “but I’m totally appropriating from what other folks have done and tweaking it for this particular community.”
Some of those tweaks are about appealing to local taste. The food will be 80% sourced locally, but will also include avocados, pineapples, bananas, and yucca. “That’s what the community needs,” she says, “and we want to meet them there.” The bus will spend one day a week in different neighborhoods, staying there all day, like a curbside farmstand.
“The one thing that I’ve learned through my work here is think big, but start small,” she says. “Do what’s realistic.”
But she is still thinking big: A short list of goals includes starting her own 40- to 50-acre farm, expanding to more mobile markets and establishing her own incubator to give would-be food entrepreneurs in her community a more fertile place to grow.