9/26/13

Lessons from the Mobile Market, by Gene Buonaccorsi

In my opinion, one of the most frustrating tendencies of the human mind is to dilute long engagements to a single distinct memory, rather than maintaining a log of different occurrences. Luckily pen and paper allowed me to keep track of some of the more fleeting, but noteworthy experiences that I had working on the Mobile Market this summer. As a farewell, I’d like to share three lessons that I only fully realized upon reading back over my book of notes. 

1. You can always find more space.

For those who have been inside the Mobile Market bus during the day, the chaotic facade is familiar. However, what initially looks like a mess of crates, coolers and tents is in fact the organized contents that become a functioning farm stand. Operations are highlighted by a constant desire to carry more products, provide better service and streamline efficiency. If our customers want more plums, we will find a place to store them. If we need a second table for display, we will figure out a way to bring it along. One of the most satisfying challenges of the summer was loading the bus at the end of each market -- finding just the perfect spot to store a crate, or seeking out the last nook of space for a folded sign. No matter how much the market grew, we always managed to pack it in.

This attitude is key in any progressive organization. At Arcadia, new opportunities to help fix the D.C. food system appear almost daily. I learned very quickly that satisfaction was trumped by ambition. Whether finding space for more local children at farm camp, or seeking new spots to grow on the Woodlawn Estate, Arcadia is constantly moving forward into new avenues. Much like the inside of the bus, the capacity of the organization seemed to grow over the course of the summer. There is always more room to work with for those who are willing to look for it.


2. No problem or opportunity is too small to address.

Working with Mobile Market Director Benjamin Bartley was an exercise in attention to detail. Even after weeks of helping to operate markets, Benjamin was always one step ahead of me, making plans and tweaking things in order to bring optimal service to our customers. I’m reminded of one instance when a customer returned a watermelon, claiming it was sold unripe. Taking the care to listen to the concern, refund the customer, and prepare for the possibility that others might have the same complaint seemed to be second nature for Benjamin. He described to be how customers taught him what to look for in a ripe watermelon, and how he addresses potential issues with quality. A problem others may have brushed off, or solved hastily turned into a thoroughly addressed improvement to operations in this case. The attention that each small piece of the Mobile Market gets was eye-opening for me.

Of course, this translates to a larger scale. Arcadia’s work is holistic as well as thorough. For example, the times that I got to work with Farm Education Director Morgan Maloney, she stressed how important it is to connect each individual child with the origins of healthy food. This is indicative of Arcadia’s overall mentality, and is why the nonprofit produces such successful results. Thorough, attentive work is paramount when making change. No problem can be ignored, because Arcadia’s work affects people on an individual level.


3. People love good food.

For all the attention, money and time that is spent on advertising and marketing practices, nothing I have seen compares to the success rate of someone sampling a slice of a peach at the Mobile Market. The looks on people’s faces were revelatory when they realized that they were spending their money on fresh, delicious locally grown food. While we faced obstacles like exposure, permits and space, there was no question about Arcadia and our partner farms’ quality once the food was in the customers hands. In speaking with customers throughout the summer I found that the Mobile Market is not only an option, it is a solution. One conversation in particular stands out. A customer at our Kenilworth-Parkside stop told me “Good food is enemy number one. You guys are the saviors.”

There were times this summer when I wondered at the number of programs that Arcadia is able to sustain, and the number of people that they are able to touch. Eventually, though, I realized that a small nonprofit can have long arms if the work is as powerful as sustainable food. Having faith in the work you are doing is contagious, and those who have strong connections to their cause accrue help and support from those they encounter. When the work produces something as necessary as healthy food, the converted public can communicate the success of your work. My summer with Arcadia taught me that people know good food when they taste it, and once they have tasted it, they will demand it. The vision of honest work reaching out from dedicated people is a lesson that I will take with me into my future.


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