In 2010, Main Street Birmingham, a nonprofit organization in Birmingham, Alabama, conducted a study to track the goings-on in the food community. In the course of this study, they identified a number of “food deserts” in the Birmingham area — areas of town with no access to fresh, healthy food.
This past April, writer and farmers’ market worker Ellen Riley responded by starting A New Leaf Farm Stand at the University of Alabama’s UAB Hospital. Stocked with locally grown fruits and vegetables, the portable market offers employees and patients fresh, healthy snacks and dinner potential before they leave work for the day.
Through conversations at several of the hospital’s clinics, Riley would ask, “What are you going to do for dinner?”
There were two standard answers, according to Riley: “The staff rarely took time to stop at the grocery store on the way home because they were too tired. It was just one more stop, so they’d do whatever was fast and easy.”
And the other response was more disturbing. “People told me they had no markets near their home, and no transportation to get to shopping farther away,” she says.
Riley shops every morning at a market where local farmers offer their recently harvested seasonal produce. She moves the stand to different locations throughout the work week, traveling throughout the hospital system and campus to reach as many people as possible.
So far, responses from her customers have been the most rewarding aspect of her business.
“It’s fun to see people get really excited about what they’re going to fix for dinner,” Riley says. “My first question is always, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ They are sitting down with their families for a meal, so the wellness benefits compound themselves.”
She also carries bouquets of herbs and gives out instructions on how to use them. Eventually, she’d like to print recipe cards to go with the fruits and vegetables she sells.
“People don’t necessarily want to eat fast food; it’s just there and it’s easy,” says Riley. “If you give them the opportunity to buy fresh foods, they will do it in a heartbeat — and happily.”
About the author: Olivia Terenzio grew up in Mississippi, where she cultivated a love of sweet potatoes, crawfish and cloth napkins at a young age. A passion for sharing food with friends and family led her into the kitchen and later to culinary school, where she learned how to roast a chicken and decorate a cake like a pro. As a Williams-Sonoma blog editor, she’s now lucky enough to be talking, writing and thinking about food all day.