Mark Lilly of Farm to Family brings fresh produce to people all over central Virginia, and in the process aims to transform the American food landscape.
When the recent “snowpocalypse” blizzard swept through central Virginia, Mark Lilly was ready to grab the opportunity. While others were huddled inside with movies and mugs of cocoa, Lilly ventured out into the storm to provide the people of Richmond what he knew they’d want: fresh food straight from the farm.
“Many trucks that bring food to grocery stores have canceled deliveries,” he posted on his Facebook page for the benefit of his 1,500 fans. “The bus is on the road! … we still have food! and snow tires! … I will be delivering today, get all your neighbors together and call me or text me directions.”
His phone started ringing right away, and he pointed his old school bus packed with a cornucopia of fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy and baked goods in the direction of the first caller. The one-man Farm to Family company had just launched into one of the best days in its six-month history.
“It was one of the busiest days I’ve had,” Lilly says. “They would get the whole neighborhood involved. I’d go and everyone would come.”
Country Store on a School Bus
The inside of the Farm to Family bus is designed like an old-fashioned country store, with reclaimed barn wood and burlap creating a down-home ambiance, and the shelves lined with everything from potatoes to peach cider.
“Hydroponic lettuce, tomatoes, eggs, bacon, sausage, barbeque, potatoes, apples,” Lilly lists, ticking off a few things he’d be carrying on a typical day in February.
Winter, he says, “is great. I’ve got butternut squash, chestnuts, collard greens, kale, onions, sweet potatoes, apples, milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, spaghetti squash. I have people who bake pies and breads and cookies for me. I’ve got maple syrup, apple butter, apple cider, peach cider….”
Shoppers, who find out his location or request a visit via Facebook and Twitter, are generally amazed when they first climb aboard. “The whole concept of being able to shop and get local fresh produce right in their neighborhood right off a school bus just really blows them away,” Lilly tells Tonic. “They say ‘Wow!’ Then they say, ‘This is really cool’ or, ‘This is a great concept.’”
Children enjoy playing with the rabbits and chickens he brings, while adults select from some of the freshest, healthiest food around. Lilly has a relationship with Polyface Farm, Joel Salatin’s establishment made famous by Michael Pollan’s popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the movie Food, Inc.
Lilly also builds relationships with other area farmers and sells produce from his parents’ large organic garden. He believes that what he sells on the bus is all one needs to live a healthy life. To prove it, he and his wife plan to spend an entire year eating straight from the bus, a project that will serve as fodder for an eventual book.
More Than Just a Food Store
Lilly started Farm to Family when he lost his job as the manager of a restaurant last year. By the time of his lay-off, he had already purchased the old bus — inspired by extensive research on the dire condition of America’s food system, done as part of a Masters program in emergency management and disaster science.
The food system, he said, “is going to fail. It’s unsustainable. It’s horrible. It’s killing people.” He pointed out that the farming industry uses more petroleum than any other entity besides the automobile industry. There’s also only so much water and land to go around, all of which we are using up rapidly to produce far more low-quality, processed food than we can eat. “If we rely on finite resources to produce vast quantities of food, then that’s a system headed for failure,” he said.
The bus enables shoppers to support a locally oriented food system, providing business to small, organic farmers who care properly for the land and grow healthy, high-quality food for a limited customer base, unlike the ever-expanding agricultural empires of the industrial system.
So while the bus venture is a business like any other, meant to profit its owner, it is also a method of changing a broken system for the better.
Part of that effort is education. Invited to bring his bus to local schools to get the students interested in what he’s doing and why, he finds them woefully uneducated about fresh food. “A lot of the little kids are like, ‘Is this real food?’” he says. “I say, ‘Yes,’ and they pass it around, and they’re like, ‘Eewww, it’s got dirt on it! Eewww!’”
He not only educates schoolchildren, but also chats with shoppers on the bus about the health benefits of what he sells, and gives advice on its preparation. He has food-related books and movies available, and hands out free seed packets to visitors’ children to help them start their own gardens.
Hungry for Options
It is clear to Lilly that people are hungry for options other than the centralized, industrial food system that supplies them with processed junk and pesticide-laced vegetables bred for durability instead of flavor. There is so much interest in what he’s doing that he’s planning to start a second bus and hire employees to run it.
“I have people calling me from all over the state who want me to come to their city or town or location, but quite frankly I could have ten other buses in cities that I’m working now and still probably not cover everybody that wants it,” he says.
When asked whether he feels this model could represent a serious new possibility for food distribution in our country, Lilly responds with a resounding “absolutely.”
The proof, he said, “is in the pudding. I’ve already gotten hundreds of messages from people all over the country and the world. There’s no reason why this bus couldn’t work in any town or city. It’s wanted by everybody.” Office complexes, hospitals, universities, health clubs and all manner of other institutions and groups regularly call Lilly requesting a visit.
A Humble Kind of Savior
The model of a roving vegetable salesman is, of course, nothing new. “I’m not recreating the wheel,” Lilly said. “I’m just packaging an old system really nice. People have been delivering produce for thousands of years.”
It was the industrial revolution and the mechanized, centralized food system it spawned, he says, that disrupted that effective system of person-to-person delivery.
The disruption of simple, local forms of distribution makes for a population anxiously dependent on corporate food companies that can’t be trusted to have customers’ best interests in mind. Lilly’s tricked-out bus represents an unusual lifeline in this predicament, and Lilly a humble kind of savior.
Heck, his work is even affecting people’s dreams: “I’ve had two random people come up to me and tell me they had dreams that there was no food,” Lilly says. “All the supermarkets were out of food and the only place they could get food was on a school bus.”
Photos courtesy of Farm to Family