Imagine a farmer's market within walking distance where the prices are low, the crates are stocked with cultural favorites, food stamps are accepted, and local agencies are on hand for vision screening, blood-pressure testing, even needle exchanges.
That's what got under way June 30 in Camden, thanks to a $100,000 investment from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and a partnership with Philadelphia's famed Greensgrow Farms.
This new mobile market, run from a used van that Greensgrow bought with a donation from Subaru, has side windows for ventilation, awnings for shade, and racks outside for self-service shopping.
Two Greensgrow staffers - one a Spanish-speaking Camden resident - will park the van at set locations in four Camden neighborhoods every Thursday and Friday, now through October.
To meet the needs of Camden's largely Hispanic neighborhoods, the mobile market is stocking green plantains, avocados, jalapeños, yucca, and quenepas (a fresh fruit), as well as standard seasonal offerings such as tomatoes, watermelon, summer squash, peaches, and berries.
"It reminds me of my homeland," Ramon Santiago of North Camden said in Spanish, smiling as he popped a tart, pulpy quenepa into his mouth.
The mobile market accepts federal SNAP nutrition assistance cards (food stamps), Farmers' Market Nutrition Program coupons, and credit cards.
But opening day landed on the end of the month - and the end of the food-stamp cycle, forcing a number of browsers to leave empty-handed because they'd run out of food vouchers.
"I don't have the money right now," said Maria Irizarry, 52. "My check will come next week. I'll come back then."
Still, shoppers said they liked what they saw.
"This stand is going to get a lot of support," said Patricia Sturdivant, 42.
She doesn't have a car and that makes grocery shopping difficult, she said. Nearby there is only "a Chinese store, a pizza store, and the bodega corner stores," Sturdivant said, her nephew Rahmir, 6, in tow.
"He doesn't like his vegetables," she said. "But when we were walking over here, we saw the vegetables and he asked me what they were. He wanted to try them."
In Camden, as in some Philadelphia neighborhoods, access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited. The city has just one major supermarket, a Pathmark near the city's eastern border with Collingswood, and a smattering of other farmer's markets.
So Camden's children often eat processed food from corner stores, said Pam Robertson, who brought her class of preschoolers to shop at the truck when it was parked at Ninth and Pearl Streets last Thursday.
"We have a lot of obese children," Robertson said. "They don't have a lot of knowledge of healthy foods."
On this day, each of the 15 children had a dollar bill to spend - a gift from Wilbert Mitchell, executive director of Respond Inc., the organization that operates their preschool.
Mitchell said Respond, which also runs day centers for older adults, hopes to start yet another community project at this site, a bakery for fresh bread, rolls, and cakes.
In the meantime, Respond will have a makeshift shop at Ninth and Pearl next to the Greensgrow truck, stocked with baked goods made in the group's commercial kitchen.
"We're dealing with the very poor," said caseworker Annie Sadler, who escorted a half dozen elderly residents to the truck last week. "They don't normally get this. You can see how enthusiastic they are."
Other agencies slated to serve as site hosts for the Greensgrow truck are the Hispanic Family Center of Southern New Jersey, which will offer vision screening and schedule family movie nights when the truck has extended hours; the Center for Environmental Transformation, which also runs a farmer's market; and the Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association.
In addition, the Camden Area Health Education Center will be Greensgrow's citywide partner, offering blood-pressure screenings, pregnancy counseling, and needle exchanges outside the mobile market.
Greensgrow started in 1998 in a part of Kensington where the poverty level rivals but does not match Camden's, and grew into a nationally recognized leader in urban agriculture, making it perhaps perfectly suited to help another impoverished community eat its way toward better health.
The Camden venture is Greensgrow's first New Jersey project.
By including the relatively affluent Cooper Grant neighborhood near Rutgers in its mobile route, Greensgrow says it is demonstrating its commitment to nurturing the entirety of Camden.
Of course, yucca, quenepas, and the like are not grown at Greensgrow's Kensington location, so there's a learning curve ahead for staff who will buy from South Jersey growers and importers.
Mary Seton Corboy, who delights in calling herself Greensgrow's chief farmhand, says she'll bring in chefs to teach the Greensgrow staff how to select top-quality Latin American produce.
"We have a lot of hope for Camden. We really see it as a place where we can make our second home," Corboy said. "We're going to bring the lessons we've learned in Philadelphia to create a sense of active green space in Camden. That's our goal."
If the program is successful, Greensgrow could add more locations, more trucks, and more staff; perhaps operate year-round; add a Community Supported Agriculture co-op program (they've already begun a CSA pilot program in Cooper Grant); or create a small distribution hub where community organizations can pick up food for delivery to housebound clients.
On opening day, Jack Bailey, 84, quietly maneuvered his wheelchair to shop at the mobile market.
He mumbled only a few words as he used vouchers to shop, but as he went away, five dollars worth of vegetables nestled in the pocket of his motorized chair, he mustered enough energy to gratefully tell a nearby listener, "This is all right."
Makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil,
11/2 pounds medium yellow
squash, halved length- wise and cut crosswise
into 1/8-inch-thick slices
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh
1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy 12-inch skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then add half of the squash and saute, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer browned squash to a bowl, then heat remaining tablespoon oil and saute remaining squash in the same manner.
2. Return squash in bowl to the skillet. Add garlic and saute, stirring occasionally, 1 minute. Add water, salt, and pepper and simmer briskly, covered, until the squash is tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, 6 to 7 minutes. Stir in basil.
Per serving: 90 calories, 2 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, no cholesterol, 165 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6-8 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pound zucchini (3 medium),
Salt to taste
Juice of 2 large lemons
4 medium ears fresh sweet
corn (or 2 cups corn
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
4 cups cooked long-grain rice
1 cup coarsely chopped
1 large sweet red pepper,
trimmed and diced
1 cup diced roasted Anaheim chiles (canned Ortega chiles are OK)
1 cup thinly sliced green
1. Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a nonstick pan. Add the zucchini, lightly salted, and saute it over very high heat, tossing and stirring constantly, until it is flecked with brown spots, about 7 to 8 minutes. Remove it from the heat, sprinkle about 2 tablespoons lemon juice over it, and toss again.
2. Plunge the shucked corn into boiling salted water for 5 minutes, then remove it and let it cool slightly before slicing the kernels off with a sharp knife. Heat the cumin seeds in a little skillet, stirring constantly, until they release a toasty aroma, then crush them in a mortar.
3. In a large bowl, combine the zucchini, corn, cumin seeds, rice, cilantro, diced red pepper, diced chiles, and green onions. Toss everything together with the remaining olive oil, and as much more lemon juice and salt as you like. Let the salad chill in the refrigerator, in a covered bowl, for about an hour.
Per serving (based on 8): 425 calories, 9 grams protein, 86 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 113 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 8 servings
2 large ears of corn
1 large red bell pepper
4 large beefsteak tomatoes
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime
1 tablespoon lime peel
1 garlic clove, pressed
2 tablespooons chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh
11/2 teaspoons minced
seeded jalapeño pepper Salt and pepper
1/2 cup crumbled soft fresh
goat cheese (about 2
1. Lightly oil grill racks and preheat grill on medium-high heat. Grill corn and bell pepper, turning occasionally, until corn is tender and beginning to brown in spots and the pepper is blackened, about 12 minutes for the corn and 15 minutes for the pepper. Put pepper in paper bag 10 minutes to cool. Peel, seed, and chop pepper; place in a large bowl. Cool corn, then cut kernels off cobs; add to bowl with pepper.
2. Cut tomatoes crosswise in half. Using melon baller or small spoon, scoop center of tomatoes into small bowl, leaving shell. Sprinkle inside of tomato shells lightly with salt; place cut side down on paper towels and let drain 30 minutes. Discard tomato seeds and juices in bowl; coarsely chop tomato solids and add to corn mixture.
3. Whisk oil, lime juice, lime peel, and garlic in small bowl to blend. Add to corn mixture. Mix in shallot, cilantro, and jalapeño. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon corn salad into tomato shells. Sprinkle cheese over and serve.
Per serving: 129 calories, 4 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 32 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.