Role Model

Performing in community theater inspired Renee Gunter to mobilize a moveable feast for South Los Angeles

When Renee Gunter auditioned on a whim for a local play, the landscape designer never anticipated the role would lead her to embark on an unchartered career path. "I think I was at a crossroads, kids out of the house, and I wanted to help people," recall the 61-year-old South Los Angeles resident.

Auditioning for Cornerstone Theater's SEED: A Weird Act of Faith, part of Hunger Cycle (plays exploring social inequities such as healthy food access by Sigrid Gilmer), was itself "a weird act of faith," explains the former runway model and actress. SEED was her first audition in more than 30 years. "I figured, 'Why not?'" (In her mid-twenties, that same spontaneous energy landed Gunter a career throughout Europe as a runway model for designers such as Balenciaga and Givenchy.)

Gunter got the part of Ms. Robins, who is "very much like me, a community activist and advocate of conscious living and eating well."

Gunter's character in the play sets the idea of a local produce business in motion. "It never occurred to me until reading the script that I live in a food desert," says Gunter, who always sought fresh produce. "For the first time, I saw all the fast food places… even a new dialysis center going up."

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In the wake of her ah-ha moment, this past spring Gunter launched Daily Organics, a mobile produce stand for underserved communities. "I'd been designing drought-tolerant gardens, but what about all those people who can't afford to create a garden? That's what Daily Organics is about."

"This isn't a business I knew anything about, I'm learning as I go," says Gunter. "At some point, we all need to do whatever we can, no matter what the [personal] risk. Our communities aren't going to survive if we keep going down the wrong path."

Daily Organics has been a financial risk for her as well; she bought her house in South Central L.A. 10 years ago not just because she knew the area, but because it was what she could afford.

Gunter's Jefferson Park neighborhood is near where she grew up. Back in the mid-1950s and 60s, she remembers her mother sharing home-grown tomatoes with neighbors; recently more bullets are exchanged than fresh-from-the- garden vegetables.

The first time she heard gunfire, Gunter mistook the popping sounds for 4th of July fireworks. Instead of hiding, she invited her neighbors to a block party (only a handful attended ten years ago). "If we want to have a nurturing community around us as we get older, we have to create those communities ourselves," says Gunter. More than 600 neighbors and friends celebrated Independence Day together this year.

With Daily Organics, Gunter has been able to extend that devotion. "I definitely couldn't have done this without the help of so many others," she clarifies.

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People like David Weinstein, a produce distributor and understudy in SEED, who brought farm-fresh dates and just-picked grapes to snack on during rehearsals. "I'd had good produce, but nothing as beautiful," she recalls. "I had to bring that to more people." Gunter used the $300 honorarium she received from the play to launch the business.

Each week, Gunter buys organic produce (including from Weinstein). On weekends, she drives "Rusty," her old truck, to a handful of street vendor-friendly locations and piles the produce in fruit crates and old enamel stock pots. "I wanted to capture that feeling of the old days, when people ate off their land," she explains of the vintage vibe.

Gunter takes customer requests but makes sure to introduce lesser-known vegetables. "I like to surprise [customers] with new things," she says. "I hand out a lot of recipes for Swiss chard and kale."

For Gunter, the smallest snacking victories mark the real seeds of change. Recently, when a frazzled-looking young man passed by her stand, she struck up a conversation. "Mr. Carter's diabetic and was headed to get a burger like he always does when his blood sugar is low." She handed over a ripe, juicy peach.

When Gunter learned his favorite fruit was red grapes, she told him to stop by the next week. Carter hesitated, "not sure he could afford them," recalls Gunter, who told him the first taste was on the house.

"Tears welled up in his eyes because they tasted so good," she says. "For just one person to change their habits one single day, that's all I need to be grateful."

Even with a tight budget and limited retail space, Gunter still has bigger curbside dreams. "I have another old pick-up, Roscoe, waiting in the wings at a [repair] shop. I'd love to see that old guy out on the streets… and eventually, canola-powered semi trucks with "Daily Organics" painted on the side!"

Tags: food