On a particularly muggy Thursday morning, an unusual-looking bus sits at the dock of the Easy Way Distribution Center warehouse on South Mendenhall. Painted in a neon-green hue and decorated with larger-than-life drawings of fruits and vegetables, this retired MATA bus has got a brand-new bag.
Known as the Green Machine, the bus-turned-mobile market has spent the last two weeks venturing into food deserts and other underserved areas of Memphis to bring fresh produce to residents. Each weekday, the bus makes a different round of stops — from North Memphis to South Memphis, Center City to Orange Mound. This morning, the bus is waiting to be stocked. Where seats once lined the aisles, now large wooden bins rise up from the floor, and soon, these bins will be filled with watermelons, corn, tomatoes, squash, grapes, and bananas — all supplied by Easy Way.
What may seem like a humble operation is actually the product of a Herculean effort started in the spring of 2012. Partnering with St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Kenneth Reardon, a professor and director of the graduate program of city and regional planning at the University of Memphis leased an old MATA bus. He then called on a visiting professor from Italy, Antonio Raciti, to draw up plans for repurposing the bus into the Green Machine. But before he could do so, Reardon had to track down the obsolete bus plans and specifications from the Volvo plant in Quebec, where the auto manufacturers were thrilled to hear about the bus's second lease on life.
Once the designs were done, one of Reardon's students, who'd served in the military and had experience from an auto body shop in Kandahar, stripped the bus down so it could be primed and painted. Local students from Hollis Price High School stepped in to hand-paint the bus, and the Memphis Grizzlies rewarded the kids with practice jerseys and T-shirts from the players.
"None of this could have happened without robust partnerships with students, churches, neighborhood associations, Easy Way, and our advisory board of 24 organizations," Reardon says.
With the bus loaded up, the Green Machine embarks for its first stop of the day, the Venson Center high-rise at Danny Thomas Boulevard and Beale. Here, like most of the stops, seniors and residents living with disabilities make up the bulk of customers. Only two weeks in, the bus has captured the attention of a number of shoppers, but young people are few. Too, there are large chunks of time where no one enters the bus.
Although the Green Machine will focus on serving impoverished neighborhoods, there's no income requirement for shoppers.
For now, for those who do frequent the Green Machine, the experience seems to be about more than buying food.
"There is a big social and community aspect to this," Reardon says. "On our very first day out, there was a torrential downpour, but at our first stop there was a 104-year-old woman there waiting. Food establishes and maintains a sense of community."
Karlita Weaver, the Green Machine cashier and operator agrees. "They're really appreciative," she says. "I'm already starting to recognize some of the same faces coming in here."