Veggie Vendors

Jun 19, 2015

A pilot project that began in a University of Northern Iowa classroom has moved outdoors and is providing fresh produce to a couple of Waterloo neighborhoods where access to fruits and vegetables is limited by both income and language.

UNI Professor Kamyar Enshayan has been involved in local food programs for a number of years, most notably the Buy Fresh Buy Local initiative. He encourages his students to develop ideas to feed under-served neighborhoods and that’s how the Waterloo Mobile Produce Stand was born.

“It began as a class of honor students,” explains Enshayan. “A team of ten students who researched throughout the semester last year and now we are putting it into practice.”

And putting it into practice means traveling to a nearby farm to harvest the crops as they mature. One of those doing the picking is UNI student Natalie Rork. She says although they’ve been at this just two weeks, lessons are being learned. “We have sheet of what we harvest each day,” Rork explains. “And we keep track of what we use, so like last week we picked too many radishes and not enough onions, so we’re gonna pick more onions today.”

Helping guide the students is farmer Mark Litteaur who points out that with proper management, the produce stand should provide a good variety for the next several weeks. Litteaur says they will have ready “peppers, cucumbers and zucchini in July, tomatoes in  late July and by the end of August harvesting winter squash and a new crop of turnips and radishes.

The students pay the farmers wholesale prices and then charge the same at the produce stands to keep the cost low. The neighborhoods where they sell were selected because of the number of immigrant families living there. It’s estimated that Waterloo is home to 23 hundred Burmese, 400 Congolese, 200 Liberians, 400 Marshall Islanders and several thousand Latinos.

It takes nearly two hours each time to harvest, wash and package the crops, but at the stand the mustard greens, turnips, onions and strawberries sell very quickly. One of the cashiers, student Sarah Freeze says she’s rewarded each time she makes a transaction saying “it’s great to see the hard work does pay off”.

While the hard work is good, Professor Enshayan is already looking ahead for ways to make next year’s produce stand less labor intensive. “If we can find a few locations where we can grow the stuff ourselves, we can grow it and we won’t need cold storage,” predicts Enshayan, “We can just harvest and sell.”

The Waterloo Mobile Produce Project received good news last week when it was awarded a six thousand dollar grant from the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa.  It’s part of a multi-year plan that’s been sent to the AmeriCorps Vista Health Futures initiative. It’s hoped that it will receive more substantial funding in the future.