Fighting Food Deserts with a School Bus

Twenty-three million Americans live in food deserts — impoverished rural and urban areas where no grocery stores operate. Mark Lilly, a former restaurant manager, found that the solution to the problem of food deserts may lie in an old school bus.

Residents of food deserts — 6.5 million of whom are children — have neither physical nor financial access to fresh food. Their meals come from fast food restaurants and convenience stores. In a live chat with AOL Health about her “Let’s Move” campaign to end childhood obesity, Michelle Obama said she hoped to eliminate food deserts within seven years.

“We cannot look parents in the eye and tell them to do better … only to find that they don’t live in an area where they can live out those expectations,” said Mrs. Obama. “If you have to get in a cab or ride a bus or walk for miles to get a head of lettuce … you’re just setting families up for failure.”

In 2009, Lilly, who served six years in the Army and Marines, was working at a restaurant and studying for a graduate degree in Richmond, Va. During one class project, he looked into the U.S. food system. The more he learned, the more disturbed he became.

“I uncovered a lot of dark things,” says Lilly. “Most food is produced in a factory and is full of preservatives, additives, coloring, sugar and salt.” Soon thereafter, Lilly decided that he wanted to buy a bus, retrofit it, fill it with local produce and create a traveling farmers market.

He found a 1987 diesel school bus listed on Craigslist for $3,500 and charged it.

“I was driving down the interstate thinking, ‘Why did I buy this stupid bus?’” says Lilly. He parked it in his yard for several months.

One day, Lilly went to a showing of “Food, Inc.,” a documentary about food production, after which local food leaders held an open forum. There, a woman announced that she lived in a poor, dangerous part of town where fresh produce wasn’t available.

“A light bulb went off,” Lilly says. “I can penetrate any area I want with this bus.”

Farm to Family was launched in June 2009 with Lilly, who had just lost his restaurant job, as its sole employee. He now works 15 hours a day, seven days a week, and his wife recently quit her job to join the company. Lilly stocks the bus with organic, local fruits, vegetables, eggs, pies, milk, butter and meat. He visits neighborhoods across Richmond: from the inner city to the richest suburbs, from restaurants to office complexes to homes for seniors. Farm to Family accepts cash and food stamps and announces its location and wares on Twitter and Facebook.

The concept has gained international attention. Farm to Family has been featured in People magazine and on BBC World News, and Lilly blogs for The Huffington Post. Lilly fields calls and e-mails from across the United States, asking him to help set up more buses. This month, he opened a stand-alone market in his own low-income neighborhood. The residents of this former food desert have reacted with “overall joy and happiness,” according to Lilly. He cannot keep up with demand for his bus.

But Lilly’s mission also meets its share of resistance. In certain areas, the younger generation — raised without education about or access to fresh food — remains unreceptive. “They’re addicted to the stuff they’ve been fed for the past 20 years,” Lilly says. “Even if cigarettes are $35, someone will find that money, but talk to them about spending an extra $3 on vegetables and it’s like you ripped their lungs out.” In such areas, traffic on Lilly’s bus is sparse. Still, he returns each week.

Lilly believes that he cannot meet the challenges alone. “Unfortunately, city council members and people that could help the movement are not on board,” he says. He hopes that Richmond’s political leaders will eventually tell their constituents about the benefits of eating locally and naturally.

Despite difficulties, Lilly remains positive. “There’s a paradigm shift happening now,” he says. “People are looking for a way out of this system. They’re going to farmers markets and growing their own food.”

In the coming years, Lilly hopes to expand Farm to Family and to create jobs. He plans to remain an advocate for local, organic and would like his concept to spread across the nation. He wants to see parents take responsibility for their children’s health and speak up to school boards that feed children processed lunches.

It won’t be easy, but it’s possible. “It’s an uphill battle, and it takes effort,” he says. “That’s how change comes about.”

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