I came to the Lehigh Valley in 2011 after teaching for a number of years in central Virginia, where there was a thriving local food scene. One basic tenet of the work there was to push for two related ways to talk about food: as a way we connect to nature and as something that brings people together. I was thus happy a few years ago to join my colleague Larry Malinconico at Lafayette to work on what was then called The Veggie Van. Larry and a team of students had worked from 2013 to develop the Veggie Van model as a more effective way to distribute fresh, local produce from community gardens in the West Ward of Easton to its residents. Sophia Feller of the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership (WWNP) had been working with many others in community gardens and new Easton Urban Farm to grow more food neighborhood by neighborhood. It was an effort in urban agriculture dedicated to growing green space, growing food, and growing community bonds. In some circles, they would call it an effort in eliminating “food deserts” by providing better access to fresh, healthy produce for residents.
One difficulty among many in cultivating community gardens is the time and labor necessary to keep them going. This is a problem of social and environmental justice. Therefore, Sophia, Larry, and the team of students sought ways to bring the garden food to residents and not just have residents go to the gardens. The then-called Veggie Van would be somewhat like an ice cream truck, but for vegetables, setting up shop at various points in the West Ward so residents could come by to get produce, donate what they could, and find the funds going back into operating those gardens for more food. After a trial year, the team learned that setting up shop at one location was better, because it provided consistency, reliability, and familiarity. It soon became the Veggie Stand, with weekly set-ups in the West Ward from July to September.
When I got involved with the Veggie Stand in 2014, I was interested to see how it could promote the two mutually beneficial goals I was familiar with from my earlier work. The project was indeed structured for those advantages. It helped promote the health of the land by bringing more urban space into agricultural cultivation, by creating more green space, and by helping people see themselves part, not just at the end, of the food lifecycle (“from farm to fork”). It helped the health of the community by providing more fresh produce, by working to fill in a food desert, and by recognizing that doing so could follow from the choices residents made about the food they wanted to plant, cultivate, and harvest. In other words, it could promote environmental strength by helping the health of the land and the heath of the people at the same time.
The Veggie Stand is now entering its third full season and continuing to bind together the two ends of a food lifecycle, from garden to stand. To help this cause, one key development has been to see how the project is itself a space for community building. This has meant a shift in the mission of the project. It has moved in helpful ways from seeing food as an end in itself—and in this measure, more food means a more successful project—to understanding food as a means to some other end. In the new mission, our goal is build the Veggie Stand as a community space, a place where people gather each week, share recipes, bring dishes, play games, listen and play music, and participate in cooking demos. With that mission, food is a means to the ends of community health. It also shows that the Veggie Stand offers a way for people to connect to nature while building a space that brings people together.
The whole project is an extended test case worth continuing. The kinds of community conversations we have each week at 10thand Pine in Easton’s West Ward are the kinds we would hope to extend with this Food in the Public Square series of conversations.
– B.R. Cohen, Lafayette College