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Bringing veggies to the people: (l-r) EJ Krans and Tim Koch.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

Veggies on Wheels

New project aims to make fresh produce available and affordable in the Capital Region’s low-income neighborhoods

 

Amy Klein, executive director of Troy-based Capital District Community Gardens, was thumbing through a magazine a few years ago when she happened across an article about a mobile grocery store in Oakland, Calif.

“I thought it was a neat idea that they were taking grocery items into inner-city neighborhoods to service those neighbors. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could do something like that with produce, because we’re interested in fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s what our focus is,” she said. “I clipped the article that I had seen in the magazine, and I thought if funding ever came up that maybe we could give that a try.”

Three years later, what began as an abstract idea has been realized thanks to a 15-year grant from the New York State Department of Health that became available during 2005. For more than one month now, the aptly named Veggie Mobile has cruised along Capital Region streets bringing wholesale-priced produce to low-income neighborhoods in Albany, Schenectady and Troy.

“It’s phenomenal,” Klein said, describing residents’ response to the Veggie Mobile project. “It’s really beyond our wildest expectations. I really thought it was going to take people a while to get used to the idea. I didn’t think people were really going to know what to make of it, you know, maybe be a little suspicious of it and think it was kind of kooky.”

Each week, the Veggie Mobile makes regularly scheduled stops—three in Troy and two each in Albany and Schenectady—on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Since the Veggie Mobile’s inaugural run back in mid April, the number of customers has quadrupled, Klein said, from about 50 to 400 per week.

“The focus of the program is to bring fresh fruits and vegetables into low-income areas that are not being served by full- service supermarkets,” Klein explained.

Last Friday (May 25), the Veggie Mobile was parked outside the most frequented of the two stops in Albany, St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church on Whitehall Road. From here, the nearest full-service grocery store is nearly two miles away.

Even before the box truck pulled into the parking lot, customers were waiting. Others were en route, on foot from the apartment complex that’s adjacent to St. Sophia.

At one side of the truck, a doorway and steps served as the entrance. A chalkboard affixed to the open door revealed the day’s prices for the produce, which is purchased through the Menands Market, a regional cooperative farmers’ market and wholesaler. Once local growers begin producing, Klein said produce also would be purchased directly from these sources.

“We want to try to buy as much as we can locally to help the local economy,” she added.

Today, at St. Sophia, boxes of kiwi, squash, strawberries and limes lined shelving units arranged in an L shape against two of the walls. Two top-open refrigerator units contained additional selections.

Toward the back of the box, a scale and register were set up, allowing customers to make their payment—even food stamps are accepted—and proceed down a ramp from the back of the truck to the parking lot.

As the customers, the majority of whom were elderly women, perused the shelves inside, David Verner stood outside the truck and pointed up at the solar panels fastened to the top. Verner, who provided the equipment and time necessary to install the truck’s solar-power system, is one of the several individuals that helped make the Veggie Mobile become a reality through material and monetary donations that were used to cover the project’s start-up costs.

After pointing out the solar panels, Verner continued the tour of the truck’s power system. He kneeled at the driver’s side of the truck box and pulled open an underneath compartment to expose a line of six large batteries containing enough power to run the truck’s refrigeration units as well as pump tunes through the sound system’s speaker.

“You could plug it in, but we haven’t had to yet,” Verner said, noting the Veggie Mobile’s ability to self-sustain.

Making the Veggie Mobile even more environmentally friendly is its reliance on biodiesel as a fuel source.

In addition to the mobile-market project, the Veggie Mobile is utilized as part of the Capital District Community Garden’s Taste and Take program. During these events, which take place on Wednesdays, the Veggie Mobile stops at area housing projects such as Steamboat Square in Albany and Steinmetz Homes in Schenectady.

“It’s a giveaway program,” Klein said. “What we do is we do tastings of different fruits and vegetables and then we give away fruits and vegetables that we’ve tasted with folks.”

Anything that’s left over after the Taste and Take program and the three days of Veggie Mobile stops is donated to food pantries.

“It’s all about health,” Klein said. “As a society, more and more we’re concerned about obesity, especially in children. We’re concerned about the health crisis that our nation is facing, whether it’s heart disease or diabetes. There are so many issues that we’re being plagued by as a society. We’re looking to try to fix those health crises, those health issues, but here’s a way that we can deal with those health issues before they become a problem by helping people eat healthier and lead a healthier lifestyle.”

—Nicole Klaas

nklaas@metroland.net


What a Week

Secret Agent Hombre

Los Angeles Times reported this week that Mexico has been developing an e-mail and phone-call surveillance system with economic support from the United States. Verint Systems, a New York-based company, has crafted the project with the help of $3 million from the U.S. State Department. The connection raises concerns that surveillance and information will be shared between the United States and Mexico, though neither country has acknowledged any type of plan for an information-sharing program.

Who Wants to Be . . . a Kidney Recipient?

Brace yourselves—U.S. television execs might have some new inspiration coming from overseas. The Dutch public-television network BNN will air The Big Donor Show tomorrow (Friday) despite international controversy and public pressure. The show features a three-person competition for a kidney donation to be provided by a 37-year old woman with an inoperable brain tumor. The woman will choose the recipient on national television. Although many questions of ethics have emerged since the announcement, the Dutch government says it will not intervene for fear of censorship.

Hugo’s Hammer

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has shut down one of the country’s most popular, privately owned broadcast stations, inspiring protest across the country. In a decision reportedly based on the station’s criticism of Chavez’s government, Radio Caracas TV’s license will not be renewed and will be replaced by the state-sponsored TVES channel. More than 5,000 protestors gathered in Caracas, while several other large demonstrations were planned across the country. The channel is also under investigation for allegedly airing footage calling for Chavez’s assassination.

Peace Out

Citing growing strains on her health, personal relationships and finances, antiwar leader Cindy Sheehan declared Monday that she would disengage from the peace movement. Sheehan gained national attention in 2005 after she camped outside President George Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch, demanding to meet with him to discuss her son Casey’s death and the war in Iraq. She went on to form the group Gold Star Families for Peace, but has grown disillusioned with Congress’ inability to end the war. In a letter posted at the Daily Kos, she wrote that several of her relationships had been destroyed while trying to change a system that may now be “carved in immovable, unbendable and rigidly mendacious marble.”



Free speech: Kirsten Gillibrand speaks to her constituents.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

No Soldier Left Behind

Kirsten Gillibrand holds a town-hall meeting while her vote on Iraq-war funding displeases her antiwar constituents

There were signs that Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-Greenport) town-hall meeting on the No Child Left Behind Act might not go as planned. And those signs read, literally, “Teach Peace” and “Fund Education Not War.” They were carried by attendees throughout the crowd gathered in the Gowana Middle School auditorium on Tuesday. About a dozen members of the peace movement, including representatives of MoveOn.org, came to express their disappointment with Gillibrand’s May 24 vote to fund the war in Iraq.

Gillibrand, a Democrat who was elected to Congress in 2006 in a Republican-heavy district, already faces a list of Republicans who want to challenge her in 2008. Meanwhile, Gillibrand is in a precarious balancing act, trying to please her left base while staying in touch with the Republican heart of her district. Gillibrand has made a point of keeping campaign promises about open government and has held a number of town-hall meetings and Congress on Your Corner events. However, it was clear on Tuesday that some of Gillibrand’s base felt that she has not been keeping her promises on the war in Iraq.

Linda LeTendre, who said she voted for Gillibrand and thought she was a good person, carried a sign that bore Gillibrand’s own words: “We need someone who will stand up to the president.” “Standing up against the war even if your vote is voted down is a success,” said LeTendre.

As the panel discussion on No Child Left Behind came to a close, Gillibrand decided to take the issue of her vote on war funding head-on. She explained that although she had supported the bill introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), which called for a scheduled troop withdrawal, she voted to fund the war for two months because she did not trust the Bush administration enough to withdraw troops from Iraq if they were without funding. “The reason why I voted for that bill is not because I support the war. I don’t. I voted for the McGovern bill . . . because I see that this president sent our troops to Iraq without body armor, without the training that they need, without the equipment they need. . . . Bottom line is, I don’t trust the administration enough to put the entire burden on these troops.”

Gillibrand said she anticipates a change in the climate in Congress in September, and expects to see more Republicans joining the call to end the war. “We are seeing with each progressive vote more and more people shifting. Right now there are two Republicans who do not support the administration. I think that will change in September. I think you will see a shift from representatives of the most conservative districts in the nation moving towards accountability.” Gillibrand also noted that, sadly, this summer is expected to be a bloody one for troops in Iraq.

Leland Lakritz of the Saratoga Peace Alliance said that he felt Gillibrand was making things too complicated. “I just don’t want any more death and destruction in Iraq,” he said. Lakritz said Gillibrand’s vote didn’t make sense to him and that he did not believe that the president would leave the troops in Iraq without funding. “If he does that, it is grounds for impeachment. Congress has the power of the purse. They have the power to end the war. I just don’t buy it.”

Joe Seeman of MoveOn.org, who worked to elect Gillibrand, said that she should not take his support for granted. “There are a great many issues she is doing good things with. There is no comparison between her and the evil one whose name we shall not speak [former U.S. Rep. John Sweeney]. At least she has public forums and explains herself. I have no qualms about what we did. It was a good thing, but we have to hold her accountable. We have to let her know if she continues to do the wrong thing she won’t get our support again.”

Seeman said that by voting for the funding, Gillibrand may be misreading her district. “Many registered Republicans say that the war has got to end. So, I think it’s an error in judgment in thinking she would lose any votes from Republicans by doing anything she can to end the war. She may feel that way, but she may be misreading where people are today, or worse, where people are going to be in 2008.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net



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