From Farm to Depot: a Day on the FDC Truck

By Jennifer Percy, Salem Depot

I had a week off from work during the first week of August, and so naturally I decided to get up at 4:15 am one morning to ride the FDC truck. Steve Fowler, FDC’s “long-haul” driver, met me in Salem at about 4:45. If anyone is wondering, it is still pretty dark at that time.

We had five or six stops to make, including one in New Hampshire at FDC’s former main supplier, Picadilly Farms. We drove up 95 to 495, down to Route 2, up to New Hampshire right near the Massachusetts and Vermont borders, then made our way through the Pioneer Valley (I think—it was all pretty much places I’d never been before).

One thing that really interested me about my trip was that we drove past lots of small farms, some with farm stands, some with signs advertising their CSAs. I grew up in Minnesota, partly on a farm, and most farmers in the Midwest grew field corn (to feed animals) or soybeans. Not many grew “people food.” Along our FDC drive, there was a pretty little place that had pick-your-own blueberries; we drove a loop around the farm buildings past a nice patch of blueberry bushes. Another produce barn had a tractor inside off to the side with the “hood” off and its engine in parts; a cat sprawled sleepily nearby.

What I did on the trip, mostly, was sit, it seems like. Steve really seems to be a genius at what he does. He had a lot to do, but as a visitor, I only helped get the boxes on the truck at the farms, then help get them off the truck at the depot. So there was some lifting, carrying, and shoving, interspersed with a lot of sitting.

The thing that surprised me the most about the trip was how complicated it all was. Steve had frequent phone calls with Julie, starting from about 7 a.m. it seemed like. I thought that we were just driving out to pick up predetermined, already-packed crates of food, but that isn’t the case at all. Steve and Julie seemed to be constantly calculating, recalculating, and making decisions about whether we needed to ask another grower for some more blueberries, or did we want three flats of cherry tomatoes because they didn’t have enough big tomatoes, or how many bags of corn? (For example, Julie knew we needed 1,600 ears of corn. So how many bags? It depended on whether they in bags of 48 or 60. Lakeside had a few bags with 60 ears, and did we want the rest in bags of 48, or did we want all the bags to be 48-count?) Steve was also calling farmers, and he had to return used crates, berry boxes and corn bags to the right farmers.

We arrived at the Marblehead Depot around 1 p.m. and found the little truck and Dan already there with the herb share (and maybe more), as well as the Marblehead coordinator and volunteers. Julie pulled up about two minutes later, then the bread arrived.

It was time to sort the trucks. Some produce, from our main grower Riverland, was already organized in plastic bins for each depot. But most of the food was just in boxes or crates by weight or count and needed to be divided. A layer of boxed produce two-to-three feet thick covered the truck floor, with higher stacks at the cab end. Melrose produce stayed on the big truck, Marblehead produce was unloaded and stacked at the depot, and Salem produce moved over to the little truck. So, in many instances, cartons had to be opened and sorted, so that each depot got what it needed. Marblehead got three flats plus two pints of blueberries; Salem got another three pints from the flat that got opened up, plus they needed some flats of their own….. So you know when every now and then your depot doesn’t have something because it accidentally didn’t make it off the truck? It is kind of miraculous that this doesn’t happen a lot.

Julie had the lists of who needed what, and Steve was on the truck with his brain stuffed full of what produce was where. The rest of us scuttled around like sorcerers’ apprentices, lugging crates and boxes and bags between truck and truck and table and hillside. I thought I was reasonably strong, till I saw Steve lifting bins of melons above his head, while I could barely lift them to my waist; till I was lugging one bag of corn from truck to table, clutching it in both arms, and saw Julie happily traipsing by with a bag in each hand, not even dragging the enormous things on the ground. The next day, I found bruises all over my legs that I had no memory of receiving.

I remain astonished at how much work it all is, procuring and distributing food to 800 families in three towns. Day after day, week after week, there is a tiny staff bending their brains and their bodies to make it all happen. It really is amazing—and this work is largely invisible to those of us on the consuming end. So just imagine how much work it is to generate our food out of seed, dirt, and water.