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Vending Veggies

Sam Lillie of Veggie Vinder with giant kale leaf. or is that Swiss Chard?
At a reading from The Deepest Roots in Port Townsend, Washington, at the Imprint Bookstore, I met food purveyor Sam Lillie. His business is called Veggie Vinder.

-First of all, did you grow up in Port Townsend? If not, why did you choose to locate here?

I'm originally from San Diego. I moved to Port Townsend in December of 2015 about a month after I finished thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It took five months to complete and, because I solo hiked, I spent the majority of it alone. I returned to San Diego but felt claustrophobic from the amount of people. I have family in Port Townsend and was offered a place to stay while I transitioned back into the "real" world. It's been perfect. I get to wake up, have coffee, see deer, and be a part of such an incredible community. I applied to, and was rejected from, 106 companies across 4 states before starting Vinder.

-When you were in school, is this was you envisioned doing? If not, what?

No. In fact, I envisioned being a Marine Corps pilot or developing a mobile app that would identify plants through photos. After hiking the PCT, I felt that if there was any time to develop a mobile app for plant identification, it was now. I actually tried to develop the app, but the startup cost was incredibly expensive.

-Do you consider yourself a vegetable broker? Given the economics of food, is that a viable way to make a living?

I don't consider myself a broker in the sense that I buy and sell produce for others. Vinder arranges connections between buyers (community members looking for local produce) and sellers (Home gardeners, community gardens, and urban farms) but the sale is made between the buyer and grower. It's actually more of a request because you're asking for produce from someone's backyard garden.

Given the economics, I think it is a viable way to make a living. Online grocery sales are growing at a rate of 9.5% annually and is set to be a $9.5 billion market next year according to an IBIS world report. As for whether or not it's a viable way to make a living for growers selling through Vinder, I don't think so. It's best used to generate side income and help subsidize the cost of a garden (water, fertilizer, etc). Vinder doesn't charge growers to sell their produce. If they post tomatoes for $5/lb and sell a pound -- they make $5. We charge a 20% service fee to the consumer which allows us to maintain the site, add features, and keep the cost to growers at zero.

-Do you broker food between organizations as well as individuals? How does that work?

We connect community gardens and urban farms with community members. It works just as if you were buying from your neighbor. A user can see the sellers profile and add any ripe item to their cart for check out. All payments are made online which makes pick-up or delivery easy and streamlined. We don't connect small supermarkets, food hubs, or large farms.

-Are people skeptical about you when you explain what you do?

I wouldn't say they're skeptical of me, more so of Vinder and how it works. I think this is due to the fact that it's different. It's not new a concept. We've been buying food and other items from community members since the dawn of commerce. But in the modern world, we're used to going to supermarkets, where we can get anything we want, prepped and ready to go. With that, though, we lose the connection of knowing our growers and the knowledge of where our food is grown or how.

Once people understand Vinder connects you with a backyard gardener, and they have the experience of eating homegrown produce knowing exactly how it was grown and that their purchase directly impacted a fellow community member, they realize the enormous benefits it has and their skepticism turns to enthusiasm.

-How do you check the quality of the food you broker?

Because Vinder growers are backyard gardeners, they often are ultra-organic -- not using any chemicals or sprays, using home compost, or permaculture growing methods. That being said, we don't physically check each gardener to verify their methods but we do use a rating system for both produce and the grower, which creates a communal checks and balances.

-If you could change one thing in the food system right now, what would it be?

I'd love to see a description next to each piece of fruit, vegetable, or meat product that tells the consumer how it was grown, what chemicals or additives where used, how far it traveled, the name of the farm or the individual that harvested it. This way the consumer can make an educated decision on what he/she is consuming and putting into their body.

And if that happened, I think consumer consumption of mass produced, non-organic food would significantly decrease and drive an even greater demand for fresh, local, organic food.

-What is your favorite vegetable to eat, and how do you like to prepare it?

I'm a big asparagus fan. And with no shame, I admit that I like to roast it with a little smoked bacon fat, cracked pepper, salt, and minced garlic.

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