When tapping into authentic local food cultures, one usually looks to farmer’s markets, street cart vendors or small mom-and-pop cafes. Those experiences don’t typically come in the form of a renovated school bus, but that’s just one of the reasons we sought out the Lilly’s, and their bus, on our East Coast road trip with the Lincoln Navigator.
For Suzi and Mark Lilly, founders of the nonprofit Farm Bus, the farm-to-table experience is more than just serving locally-sourced food, it’s about uplifting the well-being of their community in Richmond, Virginia, and society at large.
In a nutshell, they source local fresh produce, which is then delivered directly to the people in their community. But, when you get to the heart of their mission, Farm Bus is so much more than that.
The organization was born out of Mark and Suzi’s concerns about the lack of access that many of the local kids had to fresh produce, and additionally, how local farmers had a hard time staying in business. This concern pushed them to find ways to connect these two groups, and in the process helping both to succeed.
Although they both run Farm Bus, Mark and Suzi’s interest in our society’s relationship with food comes from different personal experiences. Mark’s passion for operating a mobile urban farm stemmed from his time studying the food industry in graduate school. While Suzi grew up on a farm and, as a child, spent her free time selling fruit from a farm stand with her family. This upbringing meant that her diet was mainly filled with clean, unprocessed food that not only came straight from the land, but was also grown by people she knew.
For Suzi, it wasn’t until she moved to New York City as an adult that she realized just how important having unprocessed food was to her body. While living in the city, her eating habits deteriorated, and she developed both food allergies and an autoimmune disease. She realized that what she was experiencing was indicative of a larger problem within society and, along with her 20-year experience in the alternative health food industry, proved to be the catalyst that pushed her to bring that food-health connection to the Farm Bus.
“We’re on a mission to make sure that people who want to be healthy, or people (who) have autoimmune disease or diabetes, have an alternative [to overly-processed food],” Suzi explains. “I’ve learned a lot and want to share what I’ve learned and help people.”
Their combined fervor for evolving the thinking around locally-sourced produce has transformed their organization from a mobile farmers’ market operating out of a converted school bus to a year-round indoor market.
In addition to supporting local farmers – they work with 40 to 50 of them within a given season – they bring food to areas where people don’t have access to fresh produce, like nursing homes and ‘food deserts’ – areas lacking healthy food options and grocery stores. Education is integral to their mission, so they take the bus to schools in the Richmond area in order to teach kids about where their food comes from. They also conduct workshops to educate the community on various food-related topics, such as the universal parental task of getting children to eat their vegetables.
Going beyond their local community, they are also active members of the Mayor’s Food Policy Council and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Washington, D.C., giving them a broader stage on which to share their message and impact real change.
Suzi and Mark’s involvement in these varied facets of the food industry is more than an outpouring of their collective passions, it’s a part of their mission to empower people through a locally sourced food movement. They aim for their organization to serve as a model that others, no matter where they are, can easily replicate.
“I really feel that our food system is in a lot of trouble and somebody’s got to do something,” Mark explains. “I’m just doing something on a really small scale, so if I can touch, move, and inspire other people to do what I am doing, then we [can] start creating changes.”
The Lilly’s hard work has bore fruitful transformation, helping their community regain control over the food that they consume. They are providers and protectors of their fellow human’s health and well-being, and are living proof that change is not only possible, but is ultimately fueled by relentless action.
We discovered Farm Bus on our road trip in the Lincoln Navigator. Discover more about the Navigator here.