Behind the wheel: A chef-farmer collaboration reboots the Ujamaa Freedom Market initiative

SALAD DAYS: With his Build a Better Salad food truck, chef Gene Ettison, center, is helping to reboot the groundbreaking Ujamaa Freedom Market initiative, which brought fresh produce as well as cooking education and employment opportunities to Asheville's underserved communities. Pictured with Ettison are BABS workers Jerome, left, and Tremaine Williams, both of whom were his students in the Green Opportunities Kitchen Ready program. Photo by Cindy Kunst

A few years ago, some dynamic community-builders with a repurposed school bus took on the mission of conquering the food-access woes of Asheville’s underserved communities with a concept that put both fresh produce and empowerment on wheels.

Olufemi Lewis and Calvin Allen launched the Ujamaa Freedom Market in 2014 as a worker-owned mobile business aimed at bringing affordable, healthy foods and cooking education along with employment opportunities to the city’s food-insecure neighborhoods. But after three seasons of providing fresh, local produce to Asheville Housing Authority neighborhoods and mixed-income areas identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as food deserts — communities with limited access to affordable, nutritious food — the Ujamaa effort ran out of steam.

However, the concept didn’t die. In 2017, Patchwork Urban Farms owner and founder Sunil Patel acquired the Ujamaa brand though not its problematic truck, which Patel says was experiencing daunting electrical issues due to its age.

Ujamaa 2.0

For a while, Patchwork bided its time, waiting for the perfect moment to reboot the initiative with the intention “to carry on Ujamaa’s original mission and vision of being a worker-owned mobile market servicing food deserts and underserved communities in Asheville,” says Patel. He found his opportunity in this summer’s rollout of chef Gene Ettison’s combination food truck/community-building project, Build a Better Salad.

Initially, Patel had explored the idea of relaunching Ujamaa through stationary multivendor markets an approach he’d still like to implement at some point but he saw partnering with Ettison as a more promising option. “Gene and I are on the board of Bountiful Cities and so have known each other for a number of years,” he says. “It made perfect sense to team up with Gene, who has the same mission and vision around food access issues, along with having resources that Patchwork Urban Farms doesn’t have.”

Through the retooled concept, which made its community debut at the July 14 Southside Rising for Justice event at the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center, Patchwork will supply fresh produce from its multiple city farm plots to sell via Ettison’s truck on a pilot route that will visit Asheville Housing Authority neighborhoods. Ettison will also offer healthy, veggie-based ready-to-eat meals, and the pair will co-create food education components, including cooking demonstrations and tastings.

Once the pilot program officially starts running its first route on Saturday, Aug. 18, the plan is to keep all items affordably priced and offer a sliding scale as well as EBT/SNAP. Ettison and Patel are also working on introducing Double Up Food Bucks, which will allow EBT users to get twice the fresh produce for their money.

The sliding-scale pricing model will provide expanded opportunities for the initiative to bring in financial support as it grows its coverage area beyond public housing neighborhoods and into other parts of Asheville. The pair aspire to run up to three routes per week, “visiting not only food deserts and low-income neighborhoods, but also well-to-do neighborhoods and operating at farmers markets,” says Patel.

“We hope to create a robust sliding-scale program and will need the people in affluent neighborhoods and markets to help us lower prices on food by paying a higher price,” he explains. “This will allow us to make a financially viable operation for the farmers and chefs doing this work.”

But he’s careful to clarify that, at this point, he and Ettison are just testing the waters. “This is a pilot run, so we can learn enough to execute a full relaunch of Ujamaa Freedom Market and garner support from the communities,” he says.

Keep on truckin’

From his bright-green BABS truck, Ettison will serve fresh-pressed juices, custom-made salads, sandwiches and wraps. He also has a menu of vegetarian soul food dishes — think barbecue and cauliflower mac and cheese — made with No Evil Foods, Beyond Meat and Sweet Earth proteins that will be offered as grab-and-go selections.

“But, of course, the Ujamaa route is really focused on extremely fresh and seasonal products,” he says. “So whatever Patchwork pulls from the ground that day or week is what we will demo at the different locations and feature as the entrée.”

Because of his shared vision with Patchwork and the original Ujamaa mission, Ettison says the collaboration is a natural fit. But for the Southside neighborhood native, the venture is also connected to broader personal beliefs and goals.

Ettison powered his way into his career as a chef late in life after a series of missteps resulted in multiple incarcerations starting at the age of 16, he told Xpress in a 2017 interview. Through hard work and perseverance, he eventually graduated from culinary school at A-B Tech and went on to become the chef instructor for Green Opportunities Kitchen Ready culinary training program.

But even as he worked full time at GO, pouring his energy into helping his community through teaching employable skills, he also had his sights set on entrepreneurial objectives. In 2017, he rolled out the Ettison Group, an umbrella organization that comprises, in addition to BABS, a mobile soul food restaurant called J. Lee’s Chicken Shack and a craft brewing enterprise called Concrete Rose that’s currently in its development stages.

Early this summer, Ettison resigned from his position at Green Opportunities in order to devote himself entirely to his other projects. But his business initiatives are deeply enmeshed with his drive to give back to Southside and Asheville’s other underserved areas — now as an employer and community organizer.

“I thought I could be more beneficial to the community by offering jobs than in training,” he says. “And showing that it can be done by a person with my background, that as long as you work hard, you can get it done.”

Ettison currently employs three people — all former Kitchen Ready students — with one working on starting her own pastry-focused food truck. And as the revived Ujamaa initiative grows, he can potentially help other unemployed and underemployed individuals in Asheville’s low-wealth neighborhoods secure sustainable incomes.

Having worked to adopt a veggie-focused diet and healthy lifestyle in the past year, Ettison also looks forward to being able to promote food justice through his work with BABS and the Ujamaa effort. “As an African American chef — hell, as an African American, period — I find myself being addicted to the convenience of fast food and sugars, like so many others,” he wrote in a July post on his blog, The Chef’s “Pro”spective, that introduced BABS and its collaboration with Patchwork and the Ujamaa project.

“However, the more wisdom I gain with every doctor’s appointment, I have to ask myself and inform others that this form of eating comes from years of imposed food injustice,” the post continues. “So, it’s worth asking: How would things look if the food system centered around people with less funds to spare or those people of color and other marginalized groups instead of the majority?”

Mobile market movement

“I’m very excited to see this mobile market/food truck begin to sell within communities experiencing economic inequities,” says Nicole Hinebaugh, program director for Bountiful Cities. “Sunil has the most amazing organic locally grown produce, and Gene is a phenomenal chef, so combining those skills and resources, and bringing good healthy food to the people, is really a great partnership to see moving forward.”

Hinebaugh says the model being introduced by Patel and Ettison for Ujamaa is, as far as she knows, a first for Asheville. But she’s interested in seeing how Ujamaa may find ways to coordinate — or perhaps even collaborate — with other local efforts. “I believe that making fresh healthy foods accessible to all communities takes all hands on deck, and Bountiful Cities is excited to continue supporting this work in any way we can,” she says. 

Other local mobile programs aimed at combating food insecurity are steered by nonprofits and government entities, such as the pop-up market program MANNA FoodBank and Buncombe County Health & Human Services pioneered in 2013 to provide fresh produce at government housing communities. There’s also the YMCA of Western North Carolina’s three Healthy Living mobile market and kitchen units and, in the Black Mountain and Swannanoa area, Bounty & Soul offers five weekly mobile routes providing free produce along with health and wellness education programming. Additionally, MANNA is currently seeking community input on another proposed pop-up market pilot program for its 16-county service area (see sidebar for details).

As for the reinvented Ujamaa effort, the projected route for its pilot run on Saturday, Aug. 18, will include the Shiloh Community Garden and four public housing developments in the Southside neighborhood (see sidebar for details). Patel says he’s also seeking permission from area tailgate markets to include them in the routes to augment the sliding-scale program, and he hopes the truck will be able to add regular visits to Pisgah View Apartments, Klondyke Apartments and the Deaverview community as well.

Ettison adds that other plans are also being discussed for the future, including a possible tailgate market in the Edington Center parking lot that would sell, in addition to produce, value-added food products, such as jams, preserves and condiments, all made by people in underserved communities working for a living wage.

“It’s a huge initiative, actually,” he says. “This is just the beginning.”

For more on the original Ujamaa Freedom Market initiative and its founders, read “Crossing the Distance: Mobile Markets Fight Hunger in the Deserts” by Carrie Eidson (April 22, 2014, Mountain Xpress).


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