In the parking lot of the Westmont Commons Apartments sits a biodiesel-fueled, AstroTurf-green delivery truck. Approaching the vehicle, cheerful strains of Bob Marley can be heard, drifting over the sounds of the kids playing in the nearby pool and the distant traffic of Leicester Highway.
The words "Solbury Express" are hand-painted in bright yellow on the truck's flanks. With a coat of road dust, it would not be out of place parked in the middle of a years-past Grateful Dead lot and occupied by burrito vendors.
This truck, however, is sparkling clean. With the back roll-up doors thrown open, a wood-paneled interior is visible. Fruit-laden baskets swing as the occupants make change for customers and explain what to do with a fresh beet.
Michael Read and Vara Cooper are the pilots of the Solbury Express, essentially a produce stand on wheels. The truck visits apartment complexes just like this one, a cluster of spic-and-span dwellings occupied by young professionals, families and retirees, situated on the eastern edge of Leicester. In their six-day delivery schedule, the Solbury Express also visits a number of complexes housing those at lower end of the income spectrum.
"Part of our objective in doing this is making it so that we can serve some of the more under-served populations around Asheville," says Cooper, ducking to avoid knocking into a basket of butternut squash as she searches for a biscuit to offer a customer's dog. "Whereas if we had set up a store, it's not going to make it any easier for folks to get access to fresh fruits and vegetables. That's really what we're trying to do — make life more convenient for folks [who] can't always do that for themselves."
Cooper and Read have firsthand experience dealing with a segment of the population that has difficulty securing produce or other staples. As former cab drivers, they've ferried people without other means of transportation to and from the grocery store, watching the meter climb.
"A cab ride can make your grocery bill climb that much higher," says Cooper.
It's a great idea, really, service to the under-served — though, not everyone quite gets the notion that, when the store comes to you, it may not necessarily contain every last thing your heart desires.
Case in point: An elderly lady slowly makes her way to the back of the truck — one might expect her to thrill at the sight of all of this local produce.
"How are you doing today?" Cooper cheerfully trills.
"What, you don't have any red peaches?" snaps the older woman as she eyes the huge, local whites, her dyed-red hair flaming in the sunlight.
"Just these juicy Edneyville peaches," says Cooper, still smiling broadly and gently in the face of the disgruntled shopper.
"Alright, fine." the red-haired lady mutters, shuffling away.
"Have a good weekend!" Cooper calls brightly to her retreating back.
Not everyone can be pleased — but educating helps.
To that end, the couple carries recipes with them whenever they hit the road. Directions for making baba ganouj, for example, are helpful for those who eye eggplant with suspicion. When someone frowns at the beets or casts an accusative eye at the shallots, the couple is ready with suggestions. "He's an amazing cook," says Cooper, gesturing at Read. "That helps a lot."
"We also try to inform people about organics," Read says. "Some people still don't understand what that's all about. We try to educate them about why we buy certain things organic; it lets them know what they're eating."
As for the origins of the produce? "We get as much as we can from the local farms," says Cooper. "Things like bananas, mangoes, limes — we don't grow those around here, so that comes from the international markets."
Squash from Henderson County fills those dangling baskets, alongside local tomatoes in red, gold and green from Marion, corn from Edneyville and cucumbers and cabbage from Lake Lure.
"Apple season's coming up," says Cooper excitedly. "Our organic apples that we have right now from Chile are going to pale in comparison to the honey crisp, pink ladies and everything that we're going to be getting from the Edneyville area."
When the fall comes, says Cooper, the couple plans to introduce a home-delivery program. The Solbury Express website will include an online order form, where shoppers can click to pick out produce, as well as some non-edible essentials. "You can have custom grocery orders delivered, which is part of the reason why we're trying to include things like rice, honey, flour and other things like toilet paper and batteries. Things that you don't want to go out into the snowstorm to go get, we'll bring to you," Cooper says.
Currently, there's a survey on the couple's website for those that want to initiate service in their neighborhood. "We want to get an idea of what folks would most like us to carry, what might be convenient for most people to find on our truck so they can make fewer trips in the bad weather."
Next year, the Solbury Express will likely carry produce that Cooper and Read grow organically out on their own land in Candler. The couple has also applied to accept EBT, and hopes to be able to facilitate that in the near future.
The genuine desire to help doesn't go unnoticed. Even though the Solbury Express has been a reality for just over a month, the couple already has fans. Cooper says that some people come out and visit them at each stop, even when they have no intention of purchasing anything. "They just like to know that we're looking out for them," says Cooper. "We get a lot of thank yous. Just knowing that we're doing things to help people eat more healthfully makes me feel better.""
"Showing people that good food doesn't have to be expensive, and being able to bring it right to them and talk to them face to face is my favorite part of this," adds Read. "We're lucky to be in this area where all of this good food grows — we'd like to be able to bring it to everybody."
For more information about the Solbury Express, visit solburyexpress.com.
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