I draw inspiration from a lot of different sources. I always refer back to Jeffrey Sachs’ framework for sustainable development.
Interview by Heidi Legg
Two years ago, Josh Trautwein set out to solve a problem for the people he was serving in health clinics: To access fresh food easily. He wanted real fruit and vegetables because, as he explains below, he believes they are a solution to many of our health problems. He found an old school bus, had it retrofitted with wire baskets that hang where children once shared stories and sandwiches on their rides home, and bathed the empty interior in chrome, raised money on Kickstarter, and set out to make a difference.
With farmer's markets about to open along back roads and in city centers while fresh produce overflows from Cosco to Whole Foods across the country, Josh argues that some people will still struggle to access and afford real food this summer. Real food as medicine is touted by many today. Yet, accessing real food remains a complex problem for those far from grocers, public transport and rolling landscapes. Agriculture, as de Tocqueville noted in his book Democracy in America, is a business.
Usually it takes people years to hone their craft, refine their ideas and build something visionary but we wanted to find some of the young people out there starting out in that direction. Josh, struck us as one. He's only just begun but we are keen to see what his youthful social entrepreneurship will bring about next.
Why did you start Fresh Truck?
I was working at a health center in Charlestown doing nutrition education with families, and people kept coming back to me and telling me that they appreciated the nutrition education but they had nowhere nearby to shop for healthy foods. We recognized that even though we were doing a good job educating our families about the benefits of healthy eating, we really couldn't do anything to change the fact that they didn't have anywhere to shop for healthy food.
Why a school bus?
It makes sense. It's nice and big. It's fun. People have positive association with the school bus from when they were kids, and it gave us the space to carry a whole bunch of fresh food.
Was it easy to find a bus?
Yeah, it was. There are a number of school buses out there that get taken off the road pretty shortly after they're put on the road by school districts. We work with a great retrofitter, Building Restoration Services, and they're geniuses. They had no problem outfitting a bus exactly to our specifications.
When did you first go into a community?
Our first launch was at City Hall Plaza in June of 2013 when we were invited by Mayor Menino and the Office of Food Initiatives. It was basically a demo for everybody to come and check out the bus and see how it worked. That was a cool day.
What was the first community you went to that you'd consider a food desert?
We don’t refer to any of our neighborhoods as ‘food deserts’ because a good majority of residents don’t like drawing a comparison between a desert and their community.
The issue we're trying to address is food security. As a result, we target neighborhoods that have the least access to supermarkets and other sources of healthy food options.
Where are those places in Boston?
They exist kind of in pockets. You need to take into account a lot of things like public safety, access to public transportation, the geographic distance, and it's also a function of the sort of cultural taste in every neighborhood. A lot of large retail stores don't carry different kinds of ethnic foods that are really popular in a lot of communities. These pockets exist literally in every single neighborhood, in the most affluent neighborhoods and low-income neighborhoods as well.
Who first funded you?
Our first big round of funding came from Kickstarter. We raised $32,000 with a Kickstarter campaign. We had over 300 people contribute to the $32,000. It was pretty cool. The funds came in from community people around Boston. The coolest part about it too was that we didn't know the majority of people who gave to us on Kickstarter.
There was a guy Bob Mason, who is part of Tech Stars. He’s entrenched in the startup community in Boston and gave us $1,000, even though we had never had any contact with him. That was what put us over the top of our $30,000 goal. He's just a random guy who thought it was a cool idea. And then Aleen Getty who is a philanthropist from LA; we met her at a networking event in Boston and she gave us $5,000 on Kickstarter, and then called us up one day and decided to grant us another $5,000. It's been a rare experience as a startup to have people give you money for free.
And now? How do people donate money today?
They can reach out directly on our website TheFreshTruck.org. We're in the process of launching a new website and we're working with Scout, which is a design studio out of Northeastern. We will finally have a more comprehensive donation option.
People can contact me directly. Our number is listed on our website. The next steps for Fresh Truck are really exciting. We started off as this grassroots, bootstrap startup that was figuring out how to sell food on a school bus and now we’ve created a solid blueprint for how to grow. So the next thing we're trying to do is launch a second, upgraded version of Fresh Truck with heating, lighting, and cooling.
It’s a big step we're taking from a startup to a fully formed, fully resourced nonprofit. We have a number of great partnerships in place.
Who are your partners?
Boston Public Schools, BMC HealthNet Plan, Blue Cross Blue Shield of MA, Boston Housing Authority, and a network of grassroots groups and institutions around the city that are doing work in the space of community health who really look at us as a resource to address food access.
Food access is something really challenging to address. One can't just ask a grocery store to please move into a neighborhood. The bus is also a great interactive space for food health education.
We partner with a lot of existing educational programs with organizations like Cooking Matters and Chop Chop Magazine, and the Children’s Hospital who are all doing different types of work around nutrition, education, and cooking literacy.
The bus is a great place to run those sorts of programs from cooking demos to nutrition consultations. The nutritionists from many of the health centers with whom we work actually walk patients through the bus and I talk them through nutritional densities of different foods. There is an unlimited range of opportunities for us to collaborate with those groups doing work in public health.
What do you stock on the bus now?
It really depends on what neighborhood we are in. We carry 30 to 40 different food items when we set up the market. We're able to change up our inventory and tailor the inventory on the bus for that day to serve the unique tastes of that community.
Is it packaged food or fresh?
It's all fresh, uncut, whole fruits and vegetables. We carry some whole grains, breads, and things like that too. We're slowly going to expand into prepared foods down the line. I'm gradually growing our inventories.
But it's fruit, vegetables?
Yup. It's all fresh, healthy food.
Why do you think you are personally driven to solve this food problem? Was there an injustice that bothered you before this?
I’ve been exposed to a broad range of social justice issues and I have always been most passionate about addressing issues related to youth development.
Prior to starting Fresh Truck, I was managing a community health initiative aimed at promoting physical activity and nutrition for low-income youth and families. The issue of food access came to the forefront of my program when the only grocery store in the neighborhood was scheduled to close down for a yearlong renovation.
Is there someone you look up to in terms of building something like this? Has a mentor shown you a path?
I draw inspiration from a lot of different sources. I always refer back to Jeffrey Sachs’ framework for sustainable development. Rick Wynn, one of our board members, is always my go-to-guy for financial management and strategy – he’s very thoughtful and forward-looking, he helps guide my decision-making and delineate our trajectory. Jen Walsh, the head of Special Olympics back in my hometown is the most compassionate person I know, and she modeled empathy for me at a very young age—it’s always stuck.
Where is your favorite place to go in Boston?
The soccer field at the Fens, behind the MFA. No question.
Event you are looking forward to?
I always look forward to seeing the Duppy Conquerors at Sally O’Brien’s in Somerville. They’re an awesome band, great energy and my best friends are a sure bet to be in attendance.
Which neighborhoods mean a lot to you and why?
I’ve been in Boston more than 10 years, and every neighborhood means something a little different to me. JP is the first place in Boston that feels like home, the community organizing around Roxbury (particularly at Hayley House) keeps me feeling militant and Mission Hill paid my bills when I was a bartender at the Crossing — which allowed me to start-up Fresh Truck.
The idea for Fresh Truck came about in Charlestown, and they were the first neighborhood to vet the idea for me; they’re also a super tight neighborhood and they’ve been very welcoming to me as someone that hasn’t grown up there. And East Boston was where I really cut my teeth in community organizing. There is something about every neighborhood in Boston that’s memorable for me.