The Grassroots Produce Stand That Runs Itself

Wouldn’t it be great if you could buy and sell the produce you and your neighbors are growing? Often, we grow much more than we need and leave much of it unpicked, to rot on the vine. Now this is fine from the plant’s perspective – they love returning nutrients back to the soil – but what if you could put your excess produce to work for you, and make friends in the process?

This is a romantic idea for many, but few are willing to quit their day jobs and start a produce stand – it’s a mostly seasonal, not extremely profitable business that involves a lot of sitting around, waiting for customers and worrying about expired produce.

But what if every neighborhood had its own produce stand?

Imagine a place in your neighborhood where everyone drops their excess produce – it could be a garage or shed with a few shelves and a refrigerator. A whiteboard lists what’s available, a group text lets everyone share updates through SMS, and money exchanges hands informally through Venmo or another digital payment processor.

In order to succeed, this project needs to require a minimal ongoing time commitment. The neighborhood collaborates to stock the stand, and you simply open in the morning, close at night, and remove old inventory (one of the perks of providing the stand to everyone). You shouldn’t have to rely on heavy advertising to the public – the neighborhood itself provides both supply and demand. Depending on zoning regulations, you may need to run this as a non-commercial project.

What you’ll need:

1. A Building

You’ll need some kind of building – likely a garage or shed, ideally not attached to your house. Have a door you can leave open for guests. Inside the building, you’ll want some shelves, a refrigerator (sometimes you can find a used retail display refrigerator for a few hundred bucks), and maybe a freezer. You’ll also want a whiteboard. Stock the shelves and refrigerator with numbered plastic containers for storing the produce. Or simply stack wooden crates on their sides for instant shelves.

2. Merchandise

Whatever you don’t eat from your garden, place in the produce containers. On the whiteboard, list the number of the container, the date, what it contains, the price per each, and your Venmo account name for people to send you money.

3. Customers

Knock every door in your neighborhood, telling them about the new grassroots produce stand. Anyone who has something to sell can stop by, place them in a bin, and write the item, date, price, and Venmo handle on the whiteboard. Sign them up for Venmo so they can give and take payments, and also get them signed up for GroupMe or another group chat app, so they can alert the group whenever they place something in the market.

4. A workflow

In the morning, open the shop, harvest what you can from the garden, and stock the shelves. Text the group to let them know what you placed on the shelves. Others will do the same. After a certain number of days (3-5) other vendors should return to take their leftover produce, or have an agreement that you will take it or buy it at a significant discount to help pay for the cost of running the stand.

Recommended Supplies:

  • Wooden Crates – Buy from a local hardware store
  • Refrigerator – Ideally a used display refrigerator with a glass front (you can find them on Craigslist), but anything will do
  • Whiteboard or Chalkboard – Cheapest option is to buy a sheet of masonite whiteboard from the hardware store and have it cut to size
  • Plastic containers – For holding refrigerated produce. Number them for identification. Make sure you measure your refrigerator
  • Venmo – Allows neighbors to send each other payments for produce. You won’t need a cash register.
  • GroupMe – Allows neighbors to notify each other when something new has been placed in the market

 

Recommended Reading: The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier

 

Benefits and additional ideas:

  • Get more people eating and growing fresh food
  • Use up everyone’s surplus produce, instead of letting it go to waste
  • Generate some income for yourself, and anyone in the neighborhood who could use a little more cash
  • Become the social hub for the neighborhood. Maybe put a few couches, a table and chairs, and some games in your shed. You’ll make a bunch of friends. Try hosting informal garden dinners
  • Diversify what you eat – you can start to specialize and share throughout the neighborhood. Not everybody needs a quince tree, but one grower can supply the entire neighborhood.
  • Share recipes. Many people may not be familiar with a particular plant or vegetable. Print off recipe cards and make them available at the stand.
  • In the off-season, share canned goods and other non-perishable foods and crafts.
  • Hold cooking demonstrations and gardening classes. Just make sure you have enough chairs for everyone
  • Once you have a brisk trade going, talk to local organic growers or community gardens and let them know about the market. They may drop off their excess produce if you have space.

How churches can promote local food

I was chasing my two-year old around today after church, and went through a mental exercise; I tried to tally up all of the food-bearing plants on the property, and was surprised at not only how much food we pass over in our daily routines without even noticing, but also the interesting culinary picture all these crops painted together.

I know at first, many people scoff at the thought of eating something they see every day – as if these crops are sub-par food options you should only eat when you’re starving – but there are many common landscaping plants and weeds that began as cultivated crops, and if you pictured them in the produce aisle, next to all the other fruits and vegetables for sale there, you’d start to understand not only that they’re just as “real” as the foods you normally consume, but you’ll also get a sense of the enormous amount of food all around us that goes unharvested.

I’ve noticed that many of the food cultures I admire around the world originate from a close relationship between people and the crops that grow naturally around them. You could say in almost any country outside of the United States, that foraging is a normal part of one’s culture and diet. Virtually all of the interesting cuisines out there are assembled largely from the foods that naturally occur in those places. And now you compare those to the food culture of the United States, where the mind-boggling variety and year-round accessibility of almost any food, actually makes our diet less interesting.

With that point in mind, I looked around today and asked myself what a local diet would look like in my town. What fun local customs could develop around the harvesting and processing of these crops?

Of course, it begins with a lot of greens…

Dandelions

you may scoff (I did after three unsuccessful attempts to make them edible) but dandelions are actually a perfectly good green. I make no pretenses of enjoying the taste of the raw leaves, but if you blanch them in boiling water and then saute , they are a perfectly decent cooked green with almost no noticeable bitterness.

Wood Sorrel

This ubiquitous weed is a delicate green that many children discover on the playground. Its clover-shaped leaves are sweet with a sour finish, due to the high acid content. While there are commercial varieties of sorrel under cultivation, this smaller, wild version is perfectly edible, either fresh in a salad, as a microgreen, or in a soup (I like to make a creamy potato soup, toss in a huge handful of sorrel greens, and then garnish with crumbled bacon and cream.)

Chefs recommend you don’t overload yourself on sorrel, as the oxalic acid can be hard on your kidneys. I think you’d probably grow tired of it before it did you any harm.

Purslane

Here is another powerhouse vegetable that is easy to love. Saute, blend in a smoothie, or even pickle. The semi-succulent leaves are mild but will hold up in a stir fry or almost any other application. It is called verdolaga in Latin-American cuisine, and is well-loved.

Notice how the American diet contains minimal greens, while they play a major role in other cultures. The modern Greek diet, considered one of the healthiest in the world, has a heavy focus on fresh seafood and local greens. What’s interesting is that it was borne out of poverty – Greece was practically destroyed in the two Great Wars of the 20th Century, and locals turned to foraging to scrounge up whatever would fill their stomachs.

Mulberries

For some reason this berry crop has not caught on in the United States, but it is beloved around the world, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia. The berries can be eaten fresh, preserved, and made into juice and wine. The mulberry tree is also the habitat of silkworm moths. In famine, the inner bark can be tenderized and eaten, but we wouldn’t recommend it.

Pomegranate

This one requires no introduction; you’d easily pay $2-4 a piece for pomegranates at the supermarket. Not only are the seeds eaten fresh, but pomegranates can be juiced and also turned into a delightful molasses. Here in Southern Utah, they grow like a weed. Still, you’d be surprised how many pomegranates I see in people’s yards, rotting on the branch.

Purple Leaf Plum

These landscaping trees are extremely common and also prolific bearers of tasty fruit, but you don’t often see people eating them. Why not? They’re just like a plum from the store, only smaller, and they actually taste better than store plums, since you can wait until they’re perfectly ripe before picking them. In addition to eating them fresh, we like to make plum butter – just mush them until you can extract the pit, then reduce down in a crock pot and blend. You can also make them into vinegar.

Pine Nuts

While somewhat difficult to harvest and shell, pine nuts are a valuable food crop and are still an important part of the U.S. native cultures where pine trees grow native. And they grow all around us! Why not embrace this local crop by teaching the community to harvest and process pine nuts? It’s actually a fun group activity.

Button Mushrooms

Did you know that without fungi, our forests wouldn’t survive? Microscopic threads of fungus live in our soil, attaching to the roots of trees. This symbiotic relationship pulls nitrogen and minerals out of the soil, making them accessible to the tree, while the fungus feeds on some of the sugars from the tree roots. The mushrooms you see are the brief reproductive period of the fungus.

I noticed a cluster of some kind of button mushroom growing around the base of a mulberry tree, and realized we could easily inoculate the soil with edible mushrooms, picking them as they emerge.

Estimated yield from church property

  • 20 lbs dandelion greens, plus flowers for frying
  • 15 lbs sorrel
  • 10 lbs purslane
  • 30 lbs pine nuts
  • 100 lbs plums
  • 60 lbs mulberries
  • 10 lbs button mushrooms

What can we do?

I’ll admit, I didn’t pick any dandelion greens to take home with me, but what if I did? Why couldn’t we incorporate foraging and local food harvesting into our cultural and religious institutions? Imagine if every church made a conscious decision to plant edible (ideally native) landscaping suitable to the local climate. What if they also made room for a few garden beds, and taught brief classes on how to harvest and prepare the local food crops around them. Southern Utah might have workshops on prickly pears and pomegranates, or pine nuts and wild greens. The youth or unemployed could be put to work harvesting produce from the grounds and bringing it to market. Local greens could be harvested on a regular basis and sold at farmers markets or local restaurants. The hungry could be encouraged to forage for food on the property, and would also have access to classes on how to prepare what they find.

Imagine the global implications of each local organization taking a little thought toward food production and self-reliance.

What ideas do you have?