Mobile markets are one way to address food deserts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has defined food deserts as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods — usually found in impoverished areas. A primary cause is a lack of grocery stores, farmers markets, and healthy food providers.

Lauren Chenarides, an assistant professor at the Morrison School of Agribusiness, has analyzed the barriers people face in accessing affordable and healthy food. One nationwide part of the solution has been the growth of mobile farmers markets as a way to bring the fruits of farm labor directly to folks in food deserts. Phoenix-based Farm Express is one example. Other mobile farmers markets have sprouted up during the past few years in Houston and other cities.

Chenarides spoke with Ideas Unlimited to discuss ways public entities and private businesses can continue to address the issue of food deserts.

Ideas Unlimited: How did your hometown and childhood play a role in your interests in food access and the issue of food deserts?

Chenarides: I am from New York &emdash; a town just outside of Poughkeepsie in the Hudson Valley. It's located about an hour north of Manhattan. We moved a few times, but I mostly lived in a town called Hopewell Junction. It has grown a bit. Poughkeepsie is urban. In the Northeast, there are a lot more people per square mile compared to Arizona. So even living in the suburbs of Poughkeepsie, we are still classified by the census as being in a metropolitan area. We had a lot of amenities. We had a lot of choices for food stores. At the same time, you would also see dairy farms and apple orchards in the more rural areas where I grew up. You would see various vegetables being grown.

It actually wasn't until I moved to New York City when I started to realize that having poor food access is not limited to a rural area. We can have poor food access even in urban communities where there is a barrier to getting to the store. Food access depends on where you live to some extent, but it is ease of access to a store and the factors that go into that. It could be transportation, the number of people in a household you are shopping for, and the choices you have. In (some) rural areas of the country, it's pretty obvious there are no stores. The interest wasn't necessarily from where I grew up, but what I experienced once I moved into an urban area in New York City.

Ideas Unlimited: In rural areas, are there some factors that have exacerbated the problem of poor food access during the past two or three decades?

Chenarides: A lot of it has to do with the economy as a whole. There are different industries that were around 40 or 50 years ago in parts of rural America that are no longer as prominent in terms of employing people. It's very cyclical on how the economy operates on a macro level. As the population density decreases in an area, stores that need the population to support their long-term profitability start to suffer because there are not as many people living in an area. We start to see those stores go out of business. We see from just the past 10 years or so after the recession, certain retailers found it harder to rebound. They couldn't be supported by the decrease in demand for their services.

Ideas Unlimited: Considering multiple factors create food deserts, how have mobile farmers markets stepped in to be one part of the solution in Phoenix and other cities?

Chenarides: There is a mobile market in Phoenix called Fresh Express. Elyse Guidas runs that organization. There is a Houston model (Grit Grocery), too. We are seeing more mobile markets pop up across the country and they are starting to realize this might be a viable solution to address some of the food access challenges in rural communities. People are able to re-purpose old buses, and it's a very small operation. As I see it, the next step is to create a network of these mobile market models to serve a very specific group, which is the rural population.

About 10 years ago, we saw some mobile markets pop up in New York City and they would travel to underserved neighborhoods and sell fresh fruits and vegetables. There is no one size fits all solution. With the mobile markets and addressing rural food access issues, it could work because it's a smaller footprint (than brick and mortar stores). They can staff minimally. They need a driver and one or two people to sell the food, so they can save on some of the costs where retailers have to spend a lot more. They can also go where there is demand.

The challenge some mobile markets may face is maintaining some of the relationships with food distributors. If the goal of the mobile market is to supply fresh fruits and vegetables and they have an established relationship with the distributors that will help maintain their business model. But if that relationship hasn’t been established, then it runs a risk of not getting the right types of foods that these households want. One example I learned about at a conference was a mobile market had bananas that were popular with one group. Then if they didn't bring bananas the next week, people were upset. That is a very immediate market response.

Ideas Unlimited: For mobile markets in highly populated city areas, is there a catch-22 situation of wanting to reach a lot of people in downtown areas and not neglecting lower populated areas?

Chenarides: That is what's tough … if you find a solution that works, well why not try it out in a place where more people can have access to it and have a better quality of life. But that shouldn't discount the fact there are people in need in rural areas who might be affected by other factors. It's not only that they lack access to food stores, but they also might not have access to other things that compound the issues. These mobile markets might be a solution where they can say, “Every Tuesday at 5 p.m., we are going to stop at your local church,” and that kind of expectation can be integrated into the food system. That issue comes up a lot. Which population needs help the most? But they might need help in different ways.

Ideas Unlimited: Because mobile farmers markets in cities are not directly competing with each other are there ways the market operators or cities can help each other by sharing ideas that have worked well or not worked well?

Chenarides: Sure. That is the best-practices model. Policies to address food access are implemented at various scales ranging from a very local or regional level to the national level. The SNAP program is administered nationally, but it might be run by the local state or county. There is another program called the Healthy Retail Initiative. Different municipalities work with retailers to facilitate partnerships with different suppliers to stock their stores with healthier items. When Philadelphia implemented the program, it looked different than when Phoenix implemented it. Folks who worked on those initiatives shared their best practices of what worked and what didn't work.

Ideas Unlimited: Are there any other challenges that stand out concerning food access and mobile markets providing solutions?

Chenarides: We are facing a lot of changes, mobile markets to online delivery. Couple this with the way we shop for food &emdash; which is very habitual &emdash we will continue to see new solutions arising. If things continue to shift more toward online shopping, whether that is tomorrow, in 10 years, or 20 years, one of the things we can learn is how to build trust with other people who will be the ones shopping for our food. A lot of surveys I see about whether people are willing to buy online show people don't trust someone to pick good produce for them. One of the values of a brick-and-mortar store is you can pick your own apples or bananas.

A second thing is access to technology. A lot of these features &emdash whether it’s the mobile market or online delivery &emdash require access to the internet or a cell phone. If you don’t have a computer to sit down and shop for your food, that is a barrier to getting the food you need. So people are looking at working with those in charge of infrastructure and utilities to extend our reach to where people have access to both brick-and-mortar stores and the internet.

There's more to this story

Chenarides studies the impact of existing policy solutions and interventions designed to remedy market-deficient communities that lack access to healthy, affordable food options across the nation.

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By Brian Hudgins