A Mobile Oasis in a ‘Food Desert’

We often talk about people of color and how they live in “food deserts,” places where they do not have immediate access to healthy foods. Even if they have access to fruits and vegetables, there is limited variety and the produce itself is old. This article offers a good solution that maybe we can consider out here in Southern California (since we already have so many trucks on our freeways and on our streets). I think even if folks had to pay for this fresh produce, there would still be a market for it.

The blocklong line is a mosaic of Germantown, a working-class part of Quincy, about 11 miles south of Boston. The neighborhood takes its name from the German immigrants who arrived here in the 1800s to work in the now-vanished shipyards. But today, elderly Chinese and Russian-speaking women are lined up next to young Caucasian mothers and African-American men. Children scurry about; teenagers stand with hoodies pulled tight. There are people in wheelchairs, and people pushing shopping carts. Two police officers stand by, although the mood of this crowd is not hostile.

These people are hungry.

A few minutes after 8:30, Jimmy Sambataro, a driver for the Greater Boston Food Bank, maneuvers his truck around the corner of Palmer Street and into the center’s parking lot. The 26-foot, 10-wheel rig is loaded with nearly 14,000 pounds of produce, juice, chicken, meat and dairy products. Seeing him, the crowd cheers and Mr. Sambataro — a former United Parcel Service driver — responds with a friendly toot of his horn.

Here, in what researchers call a “food desert,” the camel has arrived.

Food deserts, communities lacking access to supermarkets or other sources of fresh, healthful food, are typically thought of as being in isolated, rural areas. But as the shock waves of the recession reverberate across society, food deserts have engulfed places like Germantown. The number of children here at or below the poverty level is now four times as great as in Quincy over all.

The community’s economic woes are compounded by geography. On a peninsula jutting into Quincy Bay, Germantown is about eight miles from the nearest supermarket. That is a long bus ride for many, and carrying groceries is particularly difficult for older residents or those without cars and with children. To supplement the regular offerings of the local food pantry, the Greater Boston Food Bank began a pilot program in August called the Mobile Pantry.

It is based on a simple idea: If Germantown cannot get to the food, the Mobile Pantry will get the food to Germantown.

“It’s definitely a creative solution,” said Shelly Ver Ploeg, an economist at the United States Agriculture Department who studies food deserts. “For communities that don’t have a supermarket, this might be a way to go.”

The truck — donated by Citizens Bank — is loaded at the food bank’s headquarters in an industrial section of Boston.

The food, which is bought by the food bank or donated, is unloaded by volunteers and staff members who spring into action as soon as Mr. Sambataro arrives.

Metal tables are unfolded, signs posted, boxes sliced open. It looks in some ways like the finish line of a local marathon, food-laden tables ready to welcome the tired finishers. Indeed, many of those in the crowd that begins to file by at 9 a.m. look as if they have endured a great deal.

The food is free and no proof of need is required. This is the third time in three months the Mobile Pantry has come to Germantown, and Joan Sartori, who lives near the Germantown Neighborhood Center in a housing development for the elderly, has been there each time. “It’s stuff you wouldn’t normally buy for yourself,” says Mrs. Sartori, who said she lived on her monthly Social Security check. She has stood outside several hours for the opportunity to receive a seven-ounce package of lettuce, a bag of pears, sweet potatoes, apples, two containers of cottage cheese, a four-pack of yogurt, a half-gallon of orange juice and a choice of a seven-pound bag of either chicken, red meat or pork.

“It’s worth the wait,” says Mrs. Sartori, who says that what she collected will last her many days. “I raised five children,” she says with a wry smile. “I know how to make food last.”


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