Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Not-Actually-Spoils of the Food Wars

Busing Away Hunger with the Sisters’ Camelot

Clive rides in the back of the bus with the produce perched around her.
Clive rides in the back of the bus with the produce perched around her. Photo by Bill Lindeke.

The Camelot crew is riding through Minneapolis in an old bus painted with the message “Free Organic Food” when, idling at a stoplight, a van pulls up in the next lane. The driver is a round bald man in a white T-shirt, resting his meaty elbow on the downrolled window.

“What is this free food? You have free food?” He shouts over the sound of the diesel engines.

“You should give him something,” suggests Clive. Clay jumps up and digs through the nearest stack of cardboard boxes until his hand finds a bag of ripe red grapes. Any second now the stoplight is going to change, but Clay leans out the open bus window and reaches out his fruitful arm as the man in the van stretches his hand to bridge the canyon between the vehicles. And voila!, they complete the stoplight grape-bunch handoff.

“Finally something is free in America!” the van driver yells in an Eastern European accent straight out of a movie.

The light turns green, and again our bus groans south down Cedar Avenue.

A history shrouded in legend

Our vehicle that day was one-half of the bus fleet of the Sisters’ Camelot, a local nonprofit that’s been quietly driving around and feeding Minneapolis and St. Paul’s hungriest residents for 13 years.

Nobody seems to be quite clear about the birth of Sisters’ Camelot. Its origins are the stuff of rumor and myth, with bits and pieces of the tale traded around campfires.

What we know is simple: There was a group of founders, including someone named Jeff Borowiak, who purchased a bus back in 1997 and started delivering surplus food to the hungry. At the time, one of the founders was reading “The Mists of Avalon,” a retelling of the Arthurian legend that places the female characters at the center of the story, and named the group after the story.

During the last 13 years, the Sisters’ Camelot has moved locations multiple times, hopping around the Seward neighborhood’s light industrial districts wherever they can find affordable space. In that time, there have been between five and seven different food delivery buses. Legend has it that the first bus “fell off a mountain” years ago, on a trip somewhere out west.

A passerby contemplates how many tomatoes he can fit into his pocket.
A passerby contemplates how many tomatoes he can fit into his pocket. Photo by Bill Lindeke.

Today’s food bus is a refurbished old stalwart city transit model that has been through an artistic transformation and is now covered from rooftop to mudflap in bright paintings. The sides of the bus depict happy people of all ages and colors bearing armloads of food against a sky-blue background. Peace signs, smiley faces, hearts, and rainbows surround the mural people, and underneath it all stretches a series of painted slogans like “Support your local farmer” and “All children deserve healthy food.”

There are two ways that most people encounter the Sisters’ Camelot. First, if you happen to live in one of the Twin Cities’ working-class neighborhoods, you might come across them during their weekly food distribution, when the bright colored bus pulls up to a street corner and heaps free veggies on the sidewalk. They can also be found at Powderhorn Park’s annual May Day parade or the annual Halloween BareBones puppet show, where I first encountered them years ago. Sisters’ Camelot supports these events by handing out free meals, usually soup and cider, to people gathering. They recruit volunteers and generally make people less hungry and more happy.

And so it’s gone for 13 years. Financial support comes from individual contributions collected by door-to-door canvassers, and the nonprofit has managed to float under the radar all these years. If you’re not one of the people who has randomly received free zucchini or a bowl of soup, you’ve probably never even heard of the Sisters’ Camelot.

One day with the Camelot volunteers

Here’s how the food bus works: Twice a week, and four times weekly during the summer, an ever-changing handful of volunteers clamber aboard the Sisters’ Camelot food bus which, promptly at 11:00 a.m., pulls out of an innocuous warehouse tucked behind railroad tracks along the Midtown Greenway.

A girl helps her mom with a box of free food.
A girl helps her mom with a box of free food. Photo by Bill Lindeke

On this unusually warm November day, the bus is driven by Eric, a shy, thin man in a navy jumpsuit and greased moustache who calmly guides the big vehicle onto the interstate. The day’s six volunteers ride perched on small benches or milk crates as the bus speeds down the highway high over the city, bathing in the sunshine pouring through the rattling windows. Today’s volunteers are two men named Clay and Adam, a woman whose name I don’t learn, a quiet man with a semi-mohawk, a woman named Clive who has just moved from New Orleans, and Roseangelica, a keen-eyed woman who has clearly done this before. We ride, patiently talking, until the bus finds its exit and winds its way through industrial St. Paul’s beige back alleys in search of leftovers.

Eric pulls the bus straight up to an innocuous loading dock embedded into a low warehouse, and as the bus grinds to a halt, Eric ambles inside to see what food’s available. Everyone stands around waiting to enter the mysterious world of surplus, organic, relatively fresh, unsold food.

After what seems like eternity (but really only five minutes), the corrugated metal door rolls upward like a theater curtain, and there stands Eric with a few fellows who look like they work in warehouses. Next to them is a wooden pallet stacked high with boxes marked “organic.” One by one these boxes roll down into the bus while Roseangelica receives them, calling out the name of each particular produce. “Bananas!” she shouts, and one two three four five boxes of only-slightly-spotty bananas slide into our arms. The rest of the crew struggles to arrange them in the back of the bus.

At first the stacks are simple. Bean sprouts sit in front. Grapes go on the left. Cilantro is stacked behind them, and bananas are on the other side. Tomatoes pile up beyond that. Summer squash makes its way to the back of the bus like the cool kids in junior high. It doesn’t take long before each fruit and vegetable—brussels sprouts, rutabagas, pears, sweet potatoes, broccoli—starts to mount toward the ceiling like a game of edible Tetris. The food keeps coming through the front window. Roseangelica is calling out their names—“celery!” “radishes!” “asparagus!” “avocados!” “cabbage!” whatever the heck “hecuma!” is—and the volunteers somehow find space for the blizzard of food.

“One more pallet!” the warehouse man calls. The vegetables seem endless, five full pallets in all. They keep coming, a surplus food river flooding the bus until the last cardboard fruit box finds a home, and the volunteers breathe a sigh of relief as Adam glances around at the nearly full bus.

The process repeats at a second warehouse, the food piling high and overflowing the sides of boxes and crates. It gets to the point where Clay and Clive, riding in the back of the bus, seem to be perilously close to a grape-alanche. The bus has become a chock-a-block cornucopia of food purloined from mysterious warehouses. It feels like Robin Hood and his merry band in green, taking food from the rich and giving to the poor, only the Sisters’ Camelot is stealing from nobody. Now that the bus is full, the question is: Where do we go with our fruits and vegetables?

The Sisters' Camelot bus advertises its wares on the corner of Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street.
The Sisters' Camelot bus advertises its wares on the corner of Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street. Photo by Bill Lindeke.

On each surplus produce trip, the Sisters’ Camelot bus heads to a different street corner in a low-income neighborhood of Minneapolis or St. Paul, trying to spread the bounty to all parts of the city. The volunteers on each day’s trip choose their destination during the pickup according to two goals: to spread the food around to as many needy people as possible, and to keep the destination a surprise to avoid people lining up at an appointed location.

Today the bus heads for one of the most reliable drop-off spots: the corner by the bus stop at Nicollet and Lake, across the street from the Kmart. Eric pulls the harlequin bus up to the wide sidewalk and almost instantly people start gathering round. Volunteers unload half the food onto the street, putting out a wooden sandwich board sign that reads “Free Organic Food” in English, Spanish, and Somali. The folks along Nicollet seem to be speaking a dozen languages as they wait patiently for volunteers to stack food along the street.

For the next two hours, the stream of people wandering past the corner are treated to armloads of free food, as much as each individual can carry. The tomatoes and grapes are the most popular. Smiles appear on faces almost without fail, and the whole scene feels like Christmas or a birthday party.

The food recipients all have different stories. One man explains that he is on the way to school as he fills his arms with food. Another is on the way to the post office; he is happy to have missed his bus. I help a woman in an electric scooter reach the cabbage, but then she complains that I didn’t pick the right one. I escape when she begins to order me around, and later I see her get out of the scooter and climb aboard the bus to get her own fruit. Another woman tells me she’s been trying to lose weight and going to the YMCA, and these vegetables (and especially the leafy greens) fit into her plans.

People of all sorts and colors—families, bus riders, cyclists—form an endless parade outside the food bus. Brown paper bags become a valuable commodity as people struggle to find enough places for fresh vegetables. Tomatoes are stuffed into pockets. Everyone eats a banana, and almost everyone is happy. This goes on until all that’s left on the street are a few soggy boxes of sorry cilantro, and we get back on the Sisters’ Camelot bus and leave.

Where is this perfectly good extra food coming from?

The U.S. food system has been the focus of tremendous media scrutiny in recent years. Bookstore shelves fill with popular titles like Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” or Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” Organic produce, healthy eating, and agriculture’s environmental impacts have prompted seemingly endless stories about how we consume food. More people have started questioning the American industrial food system that, in just one example, simultaneously subsidizes cheese consumption in pizza while campaigning to reduce cheese intake in school lunches.

But somehow all this new information only makes the question of what to eat more confusing. As the arrival of organic produce at Target and Walmart blurs distinctions between big-box stores and co-ops, as organic producers expand and are purchased by large corporations, and as words like “natural” and “healthy” materialize in a million combinations on boxes and shelves, easy answers seem to disappear. Is it better to eat local or organic? Should I eat “superfoods” even if they’re out of season? What is the difference between an organic apple bought at a local co-op vs. at Whole Foods vs. Lund’s vs. Target? The culture of organic food is criticized for being elitist and expensive, and defenders of the conventional food system make populist arguments about affordability.

Given this confusing landscape and high demand for organic vegetables, how is it possible for the Sisters’ Camelot bus to fill up on free organic produce multiple times a week and simply give the food away to people who really need it? How is it possible to dumpster dive on such a macro scale?

The case of the Sisters’ Camelot is fairly straightforward: They have an arrangement with a small number of wholesalers that supply organic produce to co-ops and grocery stores in the Twin Cities. This food is an inevitable byproduct of the market system—the unpredictability of supply and demand—where wholesalers, like Albert’s Organics and Co-Op Partners, can never predict exactly how many potatoes or grapes retailers are going to want to buy. Whatever exists at the margins at the end of the day is destined for the compost pile, even if it’s perfectly good produce.

But that doesn’t explain the larger picture. In 2004 the Organic Consumers Association estimated that more than one quarter of the food available for U.S. consumers is wasted each year. If you add up all the restaurant leftovers, all the produce going bad in fridges or sitting on grocery shelves and combine it with overproduction or excesses at distribution warehouses, sooner or later you’re talking about a lot of food. While some of it ends up going to food shelves, a lot of it just gets thrown away.

Keeping the bus—and the conversation—running

Perhaps the conversation about greening our food supply should not just be about fertilizer or compost or local sourcing or organic produce or healthier diets. As the current recession grows longer, food stamp applications are at record levels, currently at over 43 million. More and more people desperately need some of the good healthy food that every day is thrown away across the United States.

In the midst of all the food fights, the simplicity of Sisters’ Camelot seems beautifully revolutionary. All they are doing is driving their bus from Point A to Point B, moving a few hundred boxes of vegetables around the city. Of all the ways that people try to alleviate hunger, for every food drive and food shelf and food assistance program, the spirit of the food bus is hard to beat. Nobody at Sisters’ Camelot asks any questions, and there is nobody making recipients feel even slightly inadequate or inferior. The delicate judgment that occasionally mars philanthropy is absent sidewalk food distribution, replaced by something positive and accepting, a combination of justice and happenstance.

The good news is that Sisters’ Camelot is staying afloat. They’ve recently moved into a new industrial space that allows them to park their buses indoors for the first time. And they’ve acquired a new mobile kitchen bus that they hope to take to community events and meetings and schools, to teach folks about cooking healthy, and to make meals in common. But whatever they end up doing, you can be sure that every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon all year long, somewhere in Minneapolis or St. Paul a brightly painted bus will be handing out fruits and vegetables to whomever happens to walk by. You might consider carrying a grocery bag with you at all times.

Bill Lindeke is a sidewalk philosopher and PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota, studying bicycling and urban geography. Read more from him at Twin City Sidewalks.

Get involved! The Sisters’ Camelot is always looking for volunteers in food distribution, fundraising, and many other areas.