In the fall of 2015, Teri Schell and five other women started Farm Truck 912 as an extension of the Forsyth Farmer’s Market, a successful market in Savannah started by the same group seven years ago. Set in the idyllic Forsyth Park, FFM was one of the first three farmer’s markets in the state to accept and then also double the value of food stamps and the idea from the get-go was to focus on farmers and food access.
“In 2010, we started talking about a mobile truck,” Teri says. “Even though Savannah is pretty small and the park is pretty central, there were a lot of people that still couldn’t get there. Saturday is still a work day for a lot of people and the neighborhoods we were looking to serve—neighborhoods where people don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables—also don’t have access to cars, and public transportation here is terrible.”
So Schell and Co. decided they would simply bring the market to people. The work, like anything worth doing, has been equal parts challenging and rewarding.
“Because the farmers market grew so fast and became popular so quickly we assumed it would be the same for the truck,” says Schell. “But we’ve struggled…it’s been a totally different animal.”
Despite these difficulties, you can hear Schell’s voice brighten when she talks about seeing people respond to the truck. “When you see our truck and see those vegetables you can’t help but smile,” she says.
What were you doing before FFM and Food Truck 912?
In 2007/2008, I was working at a non-profit, serving people experiencing homelessness and working on a USDA grant to help people to learn how to grow food and access healthy food. Part of my job was to also engage the Savannah community markets and see if they would accept food stamps.
Walk us through a typical day.
Every morning I exercise or go for a walk. I get to my office by 9:00 at the latest, answer emails and make sure the truck has everything it needs. Then I’ll help load up the truck and we head out. Right now we visit about two neighborhoods a day and some days it’s just one. Two stops can take almost 6 ½ to 7 hours. You’ve gotta load the truck, drive it to the location—and it’s a bread truck, so it drives slow and even though we’re no more than three miles away from any one spot it takes a while to get anywhere. We’re usually never in one spot for more than two hours, because we’ve noticed if we give people a shorter time frame they’re less likely to mosey.
When I’m not on the truck, I’m generally doing paperwork all day. I write all the grants. I go and speak to groups. Two weeks ago, I hosted a national group of farmers market leaders. I’ve been doing all the bookkeeping for the nine years, but I just hired a bookkeeper so that feels good.
What’s the best part about what you do?
When people are excited, that’s the best—there’s always a handful of people that are really happy to see fresh fruits and vegetables. Oftentimes they’re getting food that’s harvested the day before and sometimes even the day of. This week, someone was telling me that the potatoes we bring are 100% better than potatoes they get at the grocery store. On top of it, we’re supporting farmers and it’s really great to be able to get more money into their pockets.
Have you noticed a change/seen a difference?
I have some specific stories of people in the neighborhoods that have gone out of their way to find us because their parents or grandparents were farmers and they remember the way the food tasted.
We also just started a huge garden at our new office and we’re supporting our local mosque by helping them with their garden—it’s a great bridge during these troubling times.
How big a role does the local Savannah community play in what you do?
Without farmers, we don’t have a farmers market, without customers we don’t have a farmers market—all of it has to work together—you have to make sure everyone is happy, but also involved. 95% of people who come to the market have no idea that there’s someone like me behind it all and that’s how it should be…they feel that this is their market and that sense of ownership is so important.
Any advice for people looking to do something like this in their own city?
You have to have a passion for creating community in your city. Both the market and the truck aren’t just about food—they’re about creating a place that’s welcoming and inclusive and a fun place to be. You have to have a passion and be able to hold onto that long game vision because there’s gonna be days that you’re like, “Why the hell are we doing this?” You’ve gotta take those moments and look at all the good that’s around you.
A friend of mine once told me, “Every market, you need to take three minutes out of your day and forget about everything that’s happening in the background and just look at the people.” And when I do, I see that they’re happy— they’re laughing and talking and having conversations and meeting friends and there’s puppies and babies—that’s really beautiful and that’s what it’s all about.
How does running this truck and starting the farmers market inform the decisions you make in your own personal life re: food and lifestyle?
I’m actually from Birmingham, Alabama and all branches of my family come from farms. My grandmothers all had gardens—I’d hang out with them when my mom was at work and help them—in the 70’s it was typical to eat food that you grew. When I was a teenager, I started having all these health problems. I didn’t have a car and I needed a job and there was a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of the only health food store in Birmingham and I ended up working there. They had a cafe, so I ate there all the time—after a couple months I realized I didn’t have stomach problems anymore. It all kind of clicked. I actually opened my own farm stand when I moved to Savannah and I worked at and managed health food stores. I’ve kind of been into food since I was 19.
Favorite Savannah spots?
I have a deep love for a couple of chefs in town who buy from our farmers—chef Lauren Teague at Atlantic is one of them. Right now, she’s plating a weed called betony or rattlesnake weed and that just blows my mind. I used to pull it from my garden…it’s actually a tuber and the weed grows above ground. She’s amazing and loves farmers and tries to figure ways to support them.
Okra. We actually grow purple okra at our house. I like to sautee it in olive oil with ginger and basil and little bit of garlic with some good cheese. I can almost get all of that from our market, except for the ginger, since it’s not in season when basil and okra are.