When a third-grader asked Shari Brown (A.B. ’10) how long she'd been a farmer, Brown responded, "About three weeks, and it starts with getting your hands dirty. Who's ready?"
That was spring 2011, and Brown, an organizational studies major who minored in global change through the Program in the Environment, had just helped to launch Truck Farm Chicago. Touted as “a simple concept with a big impact,” the project aimed to plant a miniature farm in the back of a pickup and bring it to kids to teach them about fresh food, farming, and health.
Food trucks are all the rage—serving a hip and largely urban clientele gourmet rarities like chocolate-covered bacon and short-rib tacos. But truck farms help to educate kids in underserved communities for whom a tangible lesson about food production is a rare treat.
“When I graduated, my career goal was to do something for the environment,” Brown says. “I didn’t care if it was a for-profit or nonprofit; I just wanted to help out in that way. And I also knew I wanted to be in Chicago.”
While working at Seven Generations Ahead, an organization focused on building sustainable communities, Brown learned of the original truck-farm project in New York City started by filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis. (See sidebar below.) She reached out via email, they suggested she partner with environmental children’s book author Tim Magner, and Seven Generations Ahead signed on to sponsor the program.
“It Was a Piece”
Of course, the first challenge for any would-be truck farmer is finding a vehicle. And, like so many long on ambition but short on budget, Brown and Magner turned to Craigslist, where they eventually struck a deal with a man in Grand Rapids, Mich. It was a 1994 Ford F250 that they got for less than $2,000.
“It was a piece,” recalls Brown. “One of the doors didn’t open, the gas gauge didn’t work, and let’s just say that there were some things I would have liked, you know, to be a little bit newer.”
In order to more closely align with some schools' core curricula, the Truck Farm team began allowing kids to paint fruits and veggies on their truck as an art lesson. Says Brown, "Parents would laugh and say, 'You can paint this car, but not ours!'"
Brown and Magner named it Petunia (“because she was so fragile”), but they didn’t see the truck’s shortcomings as stumbling blocks; they used them as teaching points.
“A lot of people asked why we didn’t just go to a car dealership to try to get a donation,” explains Brown. “We decided that we really wanted to get an old truck that wasn’t being used for anything so that we could teach kids about recycling. We also wanted to make sure that it was a diesel truck so that we could use biodiesel and tell the kids about that, too.”
Caution: Spinach May Have Shifted During Travel
As motivated and well intentioned as Brown and Magner were, farmers—or even engineers—they were not. Fortunately, a local business called Chicago Specialty Gardens agreed, pro-bono, to help them install a raised bed with 8 inches of soil atop permeable landscaping fabric. That way, water would travel to the bottom of the truck, and it would drain “when we parked on a hill.”
As they started getting requests from schools through Brown’s nonprofit, the two learned a lot along the way.
“We went on the highway one day, looked behind us, and just saw all of our spinach getting ripped out as we drove,” Brown says. Another organization, We Farm America, helped them build a mobile hoop house.
“It was a lot of trial by error, but we figured with the right people and the right creativity, we could make it work.”
Thought for Food
Once the program got going, it began to sell itself. In communities where access to healthy, naturally grown, affordable food is scarce, the offer of a free or low-cost visit from a quirky farm on wheels thrilled teachers and kids alike. For many children, it was the first time they had seen how plants like kale, beans, and strawberries grow. And the team used the truck to incorporate as many types of education as possible—even allowing students to paint the side of Petunia with their favorite fruits and vegetables.
Some of Brown's favorite memories came from kids' hands-on interactions with the plants. Once, a student pulled up a carrot, looked at it suspiciously for a moment, and said, 'Not done yet,' before plunging it back in the soil.
“Kids’ faces would light up when they’d see this truck rolling up,” says Brown. “Based on what the teacher wanted, we’d either do painting or a composting lesson or something about renewable fuels and biodiesel. And, of course, a lot about the food system and horticulture.”
They also placed sensory plants around the edges of the bed so that kids could experience different textures and tastes.
“For example, we’d grow chives. And they’d bite into a chive and say how spicy it was and we’d say, ‘Oh, your breath stinks. Here, you should try this chocolate mint.’”
From 2011 till 2013, Brown and Magner made hundreds of visits between Earth Day and autumn’s first frost. They eventually had more requests than they could fulfill and reached more than 10,000 children in a city whose obesity rate among public-school kindergarteners, according to the Chicago Department of Health, ranks well above that of the national averages for median- and low-income families.
Life eventually took the team in different directions. Petunia is currently hauling materials for a sustainable development company, Magner is working on a book, and Brown enrolled this fall at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management with a focus on social enterprise and entrepreneurship.
“I’m interested in exploring ways to actually incorporate social goals within business models themselves,” she says. “And I feel like my org studies background coupled with an MBA could really set me up for making a difference on a larger scale.”
Wherever Brown’s career takes her, she clearly won’t be afraid to get her hands dirty.