Beyond the bookmobile: a farmers market on wheels
A rolling solution to the limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables is revving up in North Carolina.
Summer interns can do more than fetch coffee and fix the photocopier. In Guilford County, N.C., an intern’s experience with a family-owned food truck is helping bring fresh food to the area’s 24 food deserts.
More than 60,000 residents of Guilford County live more than a mile from a supermarket, more than 20 percent live below the poverty line, and many don’t have cars.
“We got an idea about two years to do a mobile farmer’ market, and we wrote a grant about a year ago to a local foundation to refurbish a bus,” Janet Mayer, a nutritionist with the Guilford Department of Health and Human Services in Greensboro, the county seat, said in an interview. “When we received the grant and started to lay the groundwork for the bus, we realized there was a lot of money and details we hadn’t counted on.”
The department’s intern at the time had worked in his family’s food truck, selling Southern dishes such as chicken and dumplings and chicken potpie from its window. He was able to help with some of the logistics of mobile food sales, sketching out initial designs and helping to envision how the county’s mobile market might operate.
The bus idea was scraped in favor of a trailer — seven feet high by seven feet wide and 12 feet long — that’s being outfitted with racks and baskets to hold fruits and vegetables.
During a nine-week pilot program, beginning Oct. 1, the Mobile Oasis Farmers Market will park once a week for two hours in two food deserts: outside the Department of Social Services in Greensboro, N.C., and at the Warnersville Community Center.
The county is sourcing 80 pounds of produce — broccoli, collard greens, sweet and white potatoes, pumpkins, onions, apples, and kale — each week from local farmer George Smith of Smith Farms Greenhouses in Gibsonville, N.C. “Whatever he’s going to pick on Tuesday, that’s what we’re going to sell on Wednesday,” Mayer said.
Prices haven’t been cemented, but the priority is to make them “really reasonable.” The Mobile Oasis Farmers Market will accept SNAP and EBT benefits, and the county is working on grants to obtain matching dollars for government assistance money spent there.
The mobile market is part of the county’s multipronged approach to addressing the area’s food deserts.
“A lot of these folks don’t have transportation and end up doing shopping at convenience stores or local corner stores. We’re trying to work with local corner stores where they’ll be stocking fresh local food,” Mayer said.
Critics of the push to bring fresh food in food deserts have argued that it takes more than providing new retail opportunities to modify behavior. Nutrition education classes and cooking demonstrations can help connect the dots, showing how a shopping basket of vegetables can be turned into dinner. This is especially important for people who, owing to location, aren’t used to buying fresh produce or preparing healthy meals.
Guilford County has the education front covered too. The North Carolina Cooperative Extension will run cooking demonstrations incorporating the produce available that day at the market, and a health-education table will have printed recipes, kid-friendly meal ideas, and information about eating healthfully on a budget.
Mayer is hoping for both sales and excitement from the community during this trial period so that the program can pick back up again in the spring growing season — and possibly expand into additional areas. “A huge success would be to sell everything,” she said.
The prospects for the project seem promising. Similar initiatives, such as Farm to Family in St. Johns County, Fla., deliver local produce to the area’s food deserts three days a week but report a demand that could expand delivery to five.
In the two years since Arcadia — a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va. — launched Arcadia Mobile Market, it has tacked on a second vehicle, as well as two teaching farms that provide some of the produce at the markets (the rest comes from local farms) and serve as outdoor classrooms to schoolchildren. Arcadia Mobile Market serves 18 neighborhoods that lack traditional markets, including 16 in Washington, D.C.
“We’ve been working like crazy for months now,” Mayer said with excitement. “And I think I’ll be relieved when we really hit the road, literally and figuratively.”
• Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appetit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, N.Y.