Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
July 26, 2010 12:00 PM

Pink-cheeked 3-year-old Josie Hanks toddles up the aisle of an old school bus, clutching an apple bigger than her fist. “I like sweet and healthy,” she chirps as her mother checks out rutabagas in a bin where the seats once stood. “My daughter will eat an entire meal of green beans,” says Sharon Hanks, 37, a homemaker. “But only if they’re fresh.”

Behind the register-and the wheel-is Mark Lilly, 42. Last July, using some reclaimed barn wood and burlap, Lilly, a former restaurant manager, remade the vehicle into a moving farmer’s market, one that would also help those most in need. His idea was simple: Load up on organic produce from farms near his Richmond, Va., base and bring it to the urban neighborhoods where nearly 4,000 families live more than a mile from a grocery store and often don’t have cars to get there. According to a USDA survey, such barren urban areas, called “food deserts,” affect some 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children. “You’ve got maybe a corner store where people can get tinned meat and white bread with their cigarettes and lottery tickets,” says Lilly. Adds Hanks, who pays with food stamps: “It’s hard to get to the store. And here, I like knowing where the produce comes from.”

Lilly admits to being a latecomer to the wholesome-food movement that has attracted many boosters, none more prominent than First Lady Michelle Obama. Raised in Richmond, Lilly was a painter who made ends meet in New York City’s Times Square tourist restaurants (“eating fried food”) before moving back home in 2006 to tend to his mother’s kitchen garden while she traveled. His “eureka” moment came at a June 2009 screening of Food Inc., a documentary about the hazards of industrial food production that extols locally grown food. “A girl stood up afterward and said, ‘Hey, I live in the city. I can’t get this stuff,'” Lilly recalls. “I thought, ‘wow, I could help these people out.'”

He bought a $3,600 used bus on Craigslist and created partnerships with farmers like Christie Huger, whose dairy farm produces natural milk and cheese. “We had to laugh,” says Huger. “That bus should be in the junkyard, but here it is reaching a lot of people who can’t get to the farm.”

Lilly gives cooking instructions and also hands out seeds to city kids and encourages them to plant them in pots. And, because he makes decent money selling in affluent neighborhoods, he can afford to give to the homeless. “This is a ministry on wheels,” says Aubrey Edwards, 49, who picked up free potatoes.

It’s also just plain good eating. On one rainy day, it was a basket of tomatoes peeking out of the bus door that had John Meunier pulling over. “You got me with those fresh tomatoes!” says the first-time customer. “Off the farms, they just taste better.”

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