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  • Emma Gonzalez

Produce Pop-Ups for the People

By Emma Gonzalez

Over the course of three seasons farming and all my years eating, I had never seen purple cauliflower. Apparently, the alchemy of sun exposure and sugar exaggerates the otherworldly hue. Salivate, I did. Despite the threat of a downpour, similarly intrigued flocks of neighbors coalesced around the tent that displayed a myriad of produce. Gentle, infrequent droplets did little to deter the curious children peering at the cornucopia of vegetables before them: violet brassicas, fresh basil drooping over the sides of buckets, rainbow chard - another pigment anomaly, sweet corn you could munch raw off the cob, the milky silk flossing your teeth, and of course, potatoes, carrots, and onions - the staple crop skeleton. This cornucopia, birthed from the earth, and tended by farmers across Vermont, materialized (with effort, not magic) in a neighborhood in Burlington’s South End stewarded by Tamarack Hollow Farmer, Nour El Naboulsi and Naomi Peduzzi of Digger’s Mirth Community Farm.

The People’s Kitchen, a local BIPOC-led mutual-aid group spearheaded by FaReid Munarsyah, has been serving hot meals, household necessities, and pantry staples at events, rallies, and in neighborhood pop-ups since 2011. With the premise that free food frees people and feeds revolution, The People’s Kitchen became a respected force for food and community in Burlington. In the spring of 2021, Nour, a friend of The People’s Kitchen, received an Agency of Agriculture grant to experiment with adding a produce stand alongside FaReid’s existing ventures. The enthusiasm with which the project was received made apparent the need for multiple avenues to food security. Fresh produce doesn’t reliably play a role in meal planning for the many people living in this country, but Naomi and Nour showed up week after week in Burlington neighborhoods during the growing season, forging a reliable channel for fresh food access.

Every Friday, Naomi and Nour gather gleaned food from area farms, redistributing edible excess produce by bringing it directly to two communities in Burlington. From my perspective as a former farmer, gleaning is the highest affirmation of our tireless toil in the soil to grow edible food. Food rescue offers an avenue for vegetables to get to as many plates as possible while alleviating farmers of the onerous task to pluck every last carrot from an extra bed seeded as climate collateral or find a market for those small onions. It is reciprocity and validation of a food system meant to feed. The People’s Farmstand makes this reality tangible as a pivotal link in the food chain connecting produce to eaters.

Still, in work pants and boots fresh from a day harvesting beets or bagging greens, they pivot from growers to distributors, bringing the food directly to the people. First stop: the community fridge generously offered by the Intervale Center to store produce gathered throughout the week. It is a clunky affair with limited space and awkward maneuvers to tetris the abundance into Naomi’s hatchback. Two ratchet straps cinch a wooden saw horse onto the roof, soon to be a makeshift table. At Pomeroy Park in the Old North End, college students and Vermonters alike ogle at the bounty and sometimes a homemade loaf of rhubarb bread is exchanged as a thank you. Produce is displayed market-style, but rather than breaking the bank, these vegetables come with no strings attached. The only catch is that people show up to take them, no questions asked, reinforcing the merits of this innovative approach to food access.

Creative efforts to tackle food access from a number of angles have cropped up over the years in Burlington. The Covid-19 pandemic especially illuminated weak corners of our global food chain and laid bare structural inconsistencies leaving community organizations floundering for funding and hungry for governmental assistance. But hunger does not wait for policy to be written or procedure to be followed. Hunger haunts communities and begs the body for sustenance. So, Food not Bombs, Everyone Eats, the People’s Kitchen, and the People’s Farmstand, among countless other organizations, heard the resounding plea, persistent long before the pandemic, to address this cacophony of food insecurity. The People’s Farmstand, small but mighty, is a piece of this resilient network connecting people to fresh food, humbly providing a morsel of liberation from barriers to acquiring and consuming vegetables. Additionally, autonomous self-selection of variety and quantity of produce shifts power into the hands of eaters and has made evident the desire for more culturally relevant produce.

At the South Meadow apartments in Burlington’s South End, the Farmstand’s second location, people gather and swap recipe ideas. One man, keen on chard, loads his arms with curly rainbows. A kid zooms by on a bicycle. Grins abound. Several languages hum in the air and new names for familiar vegetables are exchanged. Half of the visitors to the Farmstand are New Americans, so Naomi and Nour are focusing on increasing the diversity of produce, up from 40 varieties, this coming season. While again balancing full-time jobs, the two plan to continue popping up in casual market style and intentionally craft the future of the Farmstand based on community needs and preferences. This requires communicating with farmers during crop planning and compensating them for produce as would any wholesale buyer.

NOFA-VT has funded several farms to grow to produce specifically for Nepali and Somali community members frequenting the Farmstand and Naomi and Nour are sewing seeds in plots around the city. They are hopeful that the Farmstand can partner with more community organizations to mutually support one another, identify blind spots, and serve as a platform for resources and dialogues on community topics. Community support has been robust since the start, but labor and funding are fickle. A full-time UVM intern, Sadie Bloch, and a growing volunteer base add necessary fuel to the project. Burlington’s Peace and Justice Center is the official fiscal sponsor and a hopeful search into alternative funding sources to fuel longevity is well underway.

The day I first visited the farm stand, as a storm brewed, so too did thoughts of a reimagined food system grounded in a gift economy and accountable to community members. In reimagining the food system, the People’s Farmstand demonstrates that high-quality, beautiful, dignified vegetables are not a privilege or indulgence, but a taste of possibility for all. Here it is, a hopeful model of community care and at the center, the royal cauliflower displayed in all its dignity and vigor, fit for a feast.

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