The Memphis Green Machine: Lending a Helping Hand to Cultural Evolution



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Readers who have been following this blog for a while know that in addition to being a professor at the University of Connecticut, I wear a second hat as the Vice-President of the Evolution Institute (EI). The chief goal of the Evolution Institute is to connect the evolutionary science to public policy issues.

My main research interests are at the high end of the social scale. I am interested in understanding how humans evolved the capacity to cooperate in huge societies of millions and more individuals, and how we can use these insights to fix failed states, nurture productive economies, and avoid or defuse waves of political instability.  But similar scientific and policy issues arise at other levels of social organization, going all the way from nation states to city neighborhoods. Check out the recent book The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time by my friend (and EI President) David Sloan Wilson.

So I have been learning a lot about cooperation (or lack of it) at the level of neighborhoods. Two years ago, the Evolution Institute organized a workshop in Memphis, which I attended. At the workshop I met Ken Reardon, Professor of City and Regional Planning in the University of Memphis.


Ken Reardon at a recent EI workshop (photo by the author)

Ken works in a low-income neighborhood of South Memphis, which is a kind of a ‘food desert.’ The nearest supermarkets are miles away, and the convenience stores, where most residents shop for food, do not carry fresh vegetables. So if you don’t have a car, and most residents don’t, you are limited to the worst possible case of the Neolithic diet, heavy on carbohydrates from cereals and proteins from beans, etc.

In a previous blog I have already written that the post-Neolithic diet that I now follow (misleadingly known as the Paleo diet) is really a rich person diet. Our food bills have ballooned by probably 50%, and we now have to go to the supermarket to get fresh vegetables twice as often, compared to before.

Most people in South Memphis don’t have that option. So it should not be surprising that in Memphis one-third of adults are obese, and 12 percent are diabetic.

An additional problem is that younger people there don’t even know how to cook vegetables. We often forget that culture – socially transmitted and collectively stored useful information – not only evolves, it can also be lost. After a generation without access to fresh vegetables such skills have vanished, and they are not easily regained.

I am a pretty good cook (not just self-report, others say so 🙂 ). And the reason I am is because my mom (hi, mom!) is a great cook. I picked up a lot from her, some by the process of osmosis, but also a lot by actually writing down her recipes. We don’t think of cooking skills as culture, but they are.

So what can be done? Ken and his colleagues came with an idea, and I just heard from him that they have successfully implemented it. They persuaded the city of Memphis to sell them an old bus for $1. Then they repainted it and restructured it inside, turning it into a moveable vegetable feast:


You can watch this video report on Al Jazeera TV (why is it Al Jazeera, and not NBC or CBS??) for details.

Note that this is not one of those hand-out things. Vegetables are not given out for free, they are sold for cash.

I wonder whether the Green Machine can make a measurable impact on the obesity and diabetes rates. Probably not, because the scale of the health problem is so huge, but it would be an interesting research project.

Another thing they did was to organize chefs from the city restaurants to give cooking lessons to the new generation.

There are other ways of addressing the problem of poor nutrition in the poor neighborhoods. Last Spring  the EI ran a workshop in Tampa, and I am planning to publish a series of blogs on another low income neighborhood, South Tampa. (It’s taking a long time because I need to do some additional fact-checking, which is hard from Aarhus). But one idea they implemented in South Tampa was to start community gardens to grow vegetables themselves.

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Even putting the social benefits aside, this just seems like a great business idea. I’ve lived (sometime ago) in one of these places where access to decent food is scarce and going to the supermarket was almost a whole day excursion. This kind of mobile market would’ve definitely enjoyed substantial patronage.

Peter Turchin

Radek, see a comment from Ken below. It looks like the demand exceeds the supply!

SEF Editor


Thanks for your note!

Your blog was completely factual. We have had 4,000 customers purchase nearly $16,000 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables in the first four months of operation. More than half of those who board the bus do so with the assistance of a cane, walker, or motorized wheelchair.

In addition to fabulous fresh fruits and vegetables, we have a 40-inch flat-screen TV that shows 300 (1 minute) videos produced by Baptist Hospital showing the critical connection between good food and good health. The videos are supplemented by a wide range of nutrition and health literature.

We are making 19 stops a week at public housing complexes, senior centers, and youth recreational facilities. We currently have a waiting list of 11 institutions that want us to bring the bus to them. This has prompted serious discussions regarding a second bus.

The momentum generated by the success of the Green Machine has led local residents to explore the possibility of complementing the bus with a network of mini groceries that would be cooperatively owned and managed.

Have a great holiday!

With warm regards,
Ken Reardon

N Martin

In 1967, living in Zurich, my source of food consisted of the Migros truck with fresh fruits and vegies and the loal butcher shop, the local pastry shop, the local cheese shop. My two year old and I had eaten the fresh fruit from the truck by the time we reached our apartment. Getting to a store that had a regular large stock of fruit and veggies was a cable car ride rarely taken. AND this was an upper middle class neighborhood. Don’t know what the neighbors did for fruits and veggies. We were the poor American students. So recognition of the importance of fresh fruits and veggies has been spotty, sporadic and inconsistent in the past.


It struck me that part of Ken Reardon’s project is teaching the young how to cook.
However, lack of access to fresh produce may not be the only reason why cooking it became the lost knowledge. It may be a cultural shift.

Just watch this short episode from the popular American reality show ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’.

The woman is 34 and has family, but she does not know how to make cabbage soup.
The family lives in rural Georgia, USA.

Mama June Cooking Healthy? | Here Comes Honey Boo Boo w/subtitles

Many will appreciate it having subtitles:)

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