Providing an Oasis in a Food Desert

Activist Tanya Fields' innovative mobile market will bring healthy foods to the South Bronx.

Tanya Fields of the BLK Projek with the bus that will bring healthy food to the South Bronx (
Tanya Fields of the BLK Projek with the bus that will bring healthy food to the South Bronx (

Fields is trying to bring an alternative to her community.

Fields had worked a short time with a for-profit consulting business run by the South Bronx’s most famous — and recently embattled — urban environmental crusader, Majora Carter.

With Carter, Fields attended her share of conferences filled with people concerned about the plight of people living in food deserts. But most of their solutions involved a collection of mostly white activists delivering food, setting up and stocking food pantries and delivering temporary aid to poor black and Latino residents who would have to apply, line up and accept whatever was offered. They were what Fields describes as noble but unstintingly temporary, paternalistic solutions.

“I don’t mean to disrespect anything that anyone has done to truly try to help my community,” said Fields. “But it seems like the public health messages in our community constantly talk about what we are doing wrong. As I see it, my job and my goal is not to pathologize people but to provide solutions.”

First Fields tried to establish a weekly farmers market. It never caught on.

Fields then hit the Internet. It wasn’t long before she came across mobile food markets operated by nonprofits in Louisiana and Illinois. The idea seemed like an end run around several problems.

A mobile food store wouldn’t require construction, land acquisition or the political wrangling it often takes to secure an incentive package. It would also allow customers to buy what they want, in a convenient location at regular intervals, Fields said. And area residents could voice interest in specific fruits and vegetables and buy them without having to depend on the whims of donors or farmers.

But the mobile food market was one of those ideas easier conceived than executed.

Fields and a small team at the BLK Projek spent a little more than a year applying for grants, researching options and talking to area farmers and food producers. Fields found a group of farmers who owned a fleet of buses, and they were willing to lend one to her cause and sell her food that she could resell in the South Bronx.

Then Fields discovered that a single round trip from the farms outside the city to the South Bronx in one of the old school buses cost about $320 in gas alone. In addition, the bus wasn’t outfitted with the shelves, refrigeration or other equipment needed to safely store and sell food.

Fields and her team went back to a series of foundations and put out calls for individual donations online. They managed to raise $65,000 to convert one of the bus’s diesel engines to one that can run partially on discarded (and free) cooking oil from restaurants, cutting the cost of a weekly round trip to the farms down to $150. Volunteers gave the bus a new paint job. Donations also helped the team purchase and install some shelving and refrigeration. The upgrades are enough to get started.

But the bus still needs new seats, more refrigeration, new electrical wiring, a generator and solar panels to help reduce its environmental footprint and operating costs. Fields is working to raise another $30,000 to $50,000.

In the interim, the BLK Projek’s mobile market is expected to make its first South Bronx stop and sale in September.

“I am not a food purveyor or food-business person,” Fields said. “Our goals, our metric, is how many families do we feed and turn into regular shoppers — meaning they make a purchase at least twice a month. That’s how we’ll gauge our impact.”

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.