RICHMOND, Va. -- Most people want to eat right, but often find themselves turning to unhealthy food options because of convenience.
Yet, Richmond, Va., resident Mark Lilly has an easy solution to this growing problem -- bring healthy food directly into the communities that need it most.
Lilly drives his farmers-market-on-wheels (a hollowed-out school bus) from Richmond to the countryside, visiting family farms for fresh food to bring back to the city.
Beyond the taste, Lilly says local produce is healthier than typical grocery store fare.
"Most times it's not sprayed with heavy chemicals," he explained. "It's very low intensive farming. It's not industrialized farming, so there's not a lot of pesticides or herbicides."
"These smaller farms are more than likely rotating their crops, the soil has more nutrients in it, and they're throwing organic matter back into the soil," he added.
Local produce is also healthy because it's picked ripe, when vitamins are at their peak. Produce that's shipped long distance is picked early and usually sprayed with chemical ripeners.
"They put all kinds of preservatives and additives on the food," Lilly said. "I've even heard of them spray painting the food to give it color."
Buying locally is also good for the environment sincee it takes less fuel to transport the food from farm to market. The farthest Lilly travels is 150 miles to a Mennonite farmer in the Shenandoah Valley for pure maple syrup and organic, whole grain bread.
Bringing Manna to 'Food Deserts'
After Lilly collects food from the rural areas, he travels back to the "food deserts" in the inner city. It's a rare opportunity for residents in these urban areas to buy fresh, home-grown food.
Lilly pulls his bus over and advertises his vine-picked wares in an effort to stray people from unhealthy processed food. And the customers are happy to have delicious, locally-grown food delivered right to their doors.
"I think it's a blessing for certain people - basically for everybody because everybody [doesn't] have a ride and this is more healthy," local resident Jasmine Chin said with her hands full of fresh tomatoes.
"It's best to eat some stuff from the earth, you know, it's nice," resident Ricky Lambert added. "It's good to have all that stuff."
Educating the Public
Lilly teaches his customers about what he sells and also gives tips on how to cook food they may not be used to preparing.
"I've had a lot of people ask me for pineapples and bananas and oranges and stuff that doesn't even grow in Virginia, much less in season," he said. "So there's a whole education process that people have to adopt."
Lilly even accepts food stamps and is so passionate about distributing healthy food, he sometimes just gives it away.
"I think it's a marvelous idea," said Richmond city planner Chad Clinger. "It really helps to educate the population and give them an opportunity to have access to really fresh fruits and vegetables that they might not normally be able to get to at some of the better end city markets."
Helping the Area's Seniors
Retirement homes are also considered priority stops for Lilly's mobile farmers market.
"It's hard for some of us to get to the store and if we do get to the store, we've got to catch the bus, two buses, and we've got to catch two buses back," retirement home resident Maxine Cherry explained. "So I think this is really wonderful."
Lilly has been operating his mobile farmers market for a year, but got the idea for well before putting things into action.
"I was fortunate…got fired from my job," Lilly recalled. "That was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Lilly had a big dream of taking healthy food to people who don't normally get it, but had a small budget. So, he bought an old church bus for $3,600 off Craigslist and built shelves with scrap wood. Within a month he was on the road and has made enough money to support his family.
The Start of a Movement?
Lilly hopes more people will hop on the local food bandwagon.
"Instead of waiting for something to completely fall apart and collapse, we can actually try to change it before that happens," he said.
Lilly added that he's never worked so hard, but has never been happier because he knows his customers don't have to worry about where their food comes from.
Originally aired August 21, 2010.