University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Tastes great, does good

Jackson Renshaw
Photograph by Arthur Pollack

DEPARTMENTS/
ALUMNI PROFILES

Tastes great, does good

By Amy Sutherland

Jackson Renshaw ’12 wants to improve the world with a food truck. That is why he has parked his shiny, tomato-red number in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, amid the moaning buses and turn-of-the century storefronts. Most of Boston’s army of food trucks sidle up to the city’s tonier and/or hipper neighborhoods with their white-collar workers or well-heeled college students. Dudley Square, at least for now, is anything but tony or hip. Renshaw’s truck faces the tired, concrete public library and an empty lot cinched with chain-link fencing.

The truck’s chalkboards list jerk chicken, chipotle chicken, or a rice and bean stew with coconut milk. Each comes with two sides, such as a small tasty mess of sautéed greens. The menu was designed with African-Americans, Caribbeans, and Haitians who live in Roxbury in mind. The food is freshly cooked, and, more importantly, most of the fixings come from local farms. Lunch will cost you $8 or less.

“Can I try just a little bit of the beans?” an older woman with big gold earring croons through the truck’s window. “I don’t want the sides. Would you show it to me?”

Antwoine, Renshaw’s wide-smiling worker, holds up a spoonful of reddish-brown beans. Renshaw tells her that will cost $3.

“This is great having this here,” the woman calls as she walks off clutching a warm box. “If I like it I’ll be back.”

Roxbury has long been the heart of African-American culture in Boston. It has also long been one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. With poverty comes high rates of diabetes and obesity. That’s the result of a whole host of reasons, but Renshaw thinks one is that when tired workers grab a meal to go, they pick up fried chicken from the corner store or a greasy sack of fast food. You could tsk-tsk at that but there are few other choices in Roxbury or the city’s other low-income sections, Renshaw says. That’s why he parks his truck in Dudley Square three days a week at lunchtime, to give people there a choice, a healthy one.

The 25-year-old Renshaw and his partner Cassandria Campbell founded Fresh Food Generation in 2012 to add an activist twist to the farm-to-table movement, the fruits of which, so far, have been mostly reserved for the middle class and up. The twosome wanted to support local farmers and improve how people in poor neighborhoods eat—to bring them to the table, so to speak. And not just in Boston. They hope their company will inspire imitators in other cities.

Like any social entrepreneurs, the team has to make their good intentions pay. They launched a catering service first, while they raised $54,000 on Kickstarter, which after various delays arrived this January. Catering jobs will offset the costs of the food truck in Roxbury as will the two weekdays Renshaw parks the sixteen-foot long truck at busy spots. During a single lunch-hour stint at Boston City Hall Renshaw dishes four times the meals he does in Dudley Square. Eventually, if all goes as planned, Fresh Food Generation will send a small fleet of food trucks into the city’s poorer environs, but only if the balance sheet goes into the black and stays there.

 “This (company) isn’t meant to be a charity,” Renshaw says. “We aren’t trying to save the day for these neighborhoods.”

Renshaw, with his clean-cut good looks, could pass for younger than twenty-five. With his friendly, but low-key manner, he could also pass for a businessman, which he is, but one with more than profits on his mind. He has been thinking about food’s political ramifications—who has enough to eat, what they have to eat—since high school when he worked at The Food Project, which is where he met Campbell. The Food Project crosses farming with life lessons, hiring teens to harvest seventy acres in and around Boston. There, Renshaw, who lived in Somerville and went to private schools, found his calling as he worked with people from all over the city and learned how to grow vegetables.

“I love weeding,” he says. “I was always the dirtiest person on the farm.”

At UVM, Renshaw majored in ecological agriculture, which teaches students how to farm in the least damaging way to the environment. He worked on the student-run Common Ground Farm and helped with the annual cider press. He volunteered at the Campus Kitchen, a student-run soup kitchen, and an organic flower farm. Associate Professor Mark Starrett, impressed by Renshaw’s work ethic and people skills, asked him to be a teaching assistant for one of his courses. 

“He wasn’t an armchair farmer,” Starrett says. “He’s also very upbeat, always smiling.”

By the time Renshaw graduated he had decided he wanted his own farm-to-table restaurant. The problem was he’d never as much as bussed a restaurant table nor was he much of a cook (though he confesses to running an illegal pasta-making business out of his UVM dorm room).  Renshaw graduated a semester early, traveled through Peru and Costa Rica, and then went to work at an eclectic, upscale Cambridge restaurant.

Soon, Campbell tracked him down, remembering what a hard worker he was, how even keeled he was. She asked him to start Fresh Food Generation with her. During the start-up’s first year, Renshaw learned the finer points of short-order cooking in a metal box on the job working for a popular Asian food truck company. That experience banished any romantic ideas he had.

 “Unless it’s perfect weather, it’s not pleasant,” he says.

The weather is close to perfect on this windy, late spring day. The location is not. The city requires Renshaw to park his truck across the street, all five lanes of it, from the throngs at the bus station, one of Boston’s busiest. Renshaw hopes to change that, but for now he’s happy with the twenty to thirty customers that stop by the truck daily. At Dudley Square, he has time to talk, even dream about the future, when, inspired by Fresh Food Generation, legions of food trucks with locally grown food drive into poor neighborhoods in cities everywhere.

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