The Mobile Market

by Ari LeVaux

The converted ice cream truck rumbled through the streets of Missoula. “One Way or Another” by Blondie was blasting on the radio. Behind the driver, two teen-aged girls were buckled into school bus seats bolted to the floor.

One of the girls, perhaps new at the skirt-wearing thing, had trouble controlling hers in the wind blowing through the truck’s open door. “Sit on it,” advised her friend, wearing pants that day.

Skirt girl was dressed for reasons other than what you might expect from a teen-ager. She was delivering fresh produce to old people, and the fact that she wanted to look her best was telling. We were making the rounds at some low-income senior housing projects. This ice cream truck, painted red with a big Garden City Harvest logo on each side, is . Behind us, in the truck’s cargo area, boxes of fresh produce swayed.

Garden City Harvest is a Missoula nonprofit dedicated to enhancing local culture through community gardens, agricultural education and the Youth Harvest program, which provides a sort of “farm therapy” to at-risk teens assigned there by county courts. The “Youth Harvest Kids,” as they’re called, are paid to work off their sentences at the Rattlesnake Community Farm, alongside credit-seeking college students, at the shared task of growing food for their community.

The food is sold through a 75-member community supported agriculture program. The surplus – tens of thousands of pounds – goes to the Missoula Food Bank. And now there is the Mobile Market. The farm does not sell to restaurants or at Farmer’s Markets, so as to avoid competing with local, private farms.

Tim Ballard, a practicing psychotherapist and farm manager at the Rattlesnake Farm, created the Youth Harvest program in 2002 in collaboration with Missoula Youth Drug Court, the Human Resource Council and Garden City Harvest. Youth Harvest is a “therapeutic, service-oriented employment program,” says Ballard.

Working alongside cool and beautiful college students while providing a meaningful service to a grateful constituency, many of these troubled youth are feeling pretty cool and beautiful themselves, maybe for the first time ever.

At a stoplight, Youth Harvest staffer Laurie Strand turns around in the driver’s seat and asks, “You guys want to see a gnarly blister?”

“Yes!” Skirt and Pants reply in unison. Laurie has just enough time to display her weekend glory scar before the light turns green.

“Ewwwww gross!” the girls agree.

We pull into Vantage Villa, where a crowd has already gathered in anticipation. As Laurie and the girls – each on their third Mobile Market tour – set up a mini-farmer’s market in the parking lot, their extra-eager clients crowd the table.

“How much for that pepper?”

“My, my, look at that celery.”

“Got any corn on the cob?”

“I need you to step away from the table,” Skirt says, with gentle and clear authority, “while we set up.” The mob settles down and waits, the mobsters passing the time by chatting amongst themselves.

“How you doing, Donna?” asks one.

“I haven’t died yet, that’s a godsend,” she responds, hands on the wheel of her shopping cart, with a little dog in tow. I ask her about . “It’s a godsend,” she said. “I love fresh produce. Missoula Aging Services gave us coupons to spend at the farmer’s market, but I can’t get to the farmers market. Now this market comes to us.”

Finally the table is ready and the clients line up obediently, hands clasped, full of praise for the bounty before them.

“Margie wants cucumbers and cauliflower,” Donna reminds herself.

She sees me watching her, and explains, “I gotta also cook for my blind lady.”

Skirt and Pants are holding court behind the table, which is laden with corn, flowers, beets, bell peppers, celery, onions, cabbage, beans, squash, leeks, carrots, garlic, hot chiles, eggplants and potatoes. Whatever the nature of these girls’ troubles, it’s clear they’re wearing this responsibility well, and thoroughly enjoying it.

“It’s rewarding to see the smiles on their faces,” Pants says.

“I really like this interaction,” says Skirt. “People who are older are often craving it. Sometimes, as a young person, you can be like, ‘ehhhh,’ but it’s important to put yourself out there.”

Ballard had the idea for the Mobile Market a few years after Youth Harvest was off the ground, when he heard a radio show about the People’s Grocery, a mobile grocery store in Oakland, Calif., that brings high-quality food into the inner city.

The idea of Youth Harvest kids delivering the food they helped grow to low-income elderly people, Ballard recalls, seemed like it had great potential to serve the unmet needs of two different generations, both of which have different things to offer each other.

Back at the market, a woman named Mrs. Brookfield is dressed head to toe in bright whites and purple Crocs. She wants iceberg lettuce, of course, and won’t settle for a gorgeous head of red leaf. Holding her coupons close to her chest, she’s content to absorb the ambience from her seat at the umbrella table next to the stand and pontificate about everything from handling her daughter’s dog to how to have a successful marriage.

“Trust is the key. It’s not just about love and all that,” she explains. “Trust is so important, and it’s so cheap.” •