CHICAGO — Schools, hospitals, community and senior centers — these are just some stops that the mobile market Fresh Moves makes as it moves through the West Side of Chicago.
Housed on a donated Chicago Transit Authority bus, the mobile market was created by the nonprofit group Food Desert Action to supply fresh fruits and vegetables to Chicago residents living in food deserts, areas with limited access to fresh groceries.
The Fresh Moves bus is easily spotted; as part of its $50,000 rehab, the outside was painted red with fresh fruits and vegetable designs. Inside are shelves with built-in produce bins.
The aisles are wide enough for customers with wheelchairs to fit through to shop, Fresh Moves Board President Steve Casey told SN, although many have moved to ordering their produce ahead of time from the group.
Customers can find details for the bus’ Tuesday through Friday schedule online, through Facebook and Twitter, by phone or by locally posted fliers.
While offerings are limited to the space within the bus, Casey compares Fresh Moves’ produce offerings to Whole Foods’. On any given day, there will be 30 to 40 different items, some local or organic, including different varieties of leafy greens, tomatoes, grapes, sweet potatoes and mangoes.
Although the group’s inclination might have been to source locally, Casey said that Fresh Moves needs to offer an array of items where these items aren’t normally grown. So, Fresh Moves uses Chicago-based Goodness Greenness, a major organic distributor, in conjunction with local suppliers.
“The range of those suppliers allows for us to, in this case, still source mangoes in January because the kids have found that they like mangoes,” said Casey.
Now that Fresh Moves has gotten community members hooked on certain fruits and vegetables, they want to maintain their supply when possible.
From its launch last May through the end of December 2011, Fresh Moves made approximately $30,000 in sales and served at least 5,000 unique customers, according to Casey.
Fresh Moves makes 30% to 50% gross margin on its items, but aims to keep prices reasonable.
“We are highly competitive and in some cases people have told us we beat the snot out of the Whole Foods and others like them.”
To encourage customers to try items outside their comfort zone, Fresh Moves sells certain items like leafy greens at a lower margin, making sure to give advice on healthful preparation.
In fact, Fresh Moves has made partnerships to help its customers learn more about produce. Casey said Fresh Moves has worked with local Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children offices for cooking demonstrations, as well as with Kendall College School of Culinary Arts. The culinary school has provided Fresh Moves with educational help, making recipe cards available on the bus and also helping with demonstrations, like one showing how to make baby food.
The mobile market has also made unexpected relationships. Fresh Moves sells its produce to a community corner store where the group originally bought ice for the bus. Now Fresh Moves’ fruits and vegetables will be offered through another retail format in the Chicago neighborhood.
Fresh Moves is among the many groups and companies who have been working to address lack of access to healthful foods in food desert communities, an issue made prominent by First Lady Michelle Obama.
“There’s not one single reason why we have food deserts, there’s not one single problem and there’s not one single solution,” said Mari Gallagher, principal at Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group, Chicago. “And that’s really good news because it means everyone can do something and that’s actually what we’re seeing. We’re seeing a lot of different responses.”
In addition to corporate and nonprofit responses across the country, Gallagher said social enterprises, which aim to do social good while running a business, have worked on projects. For instance, her group worked on with Ahold USA’s online grocer Peapod and the social enterprise Neighbor Capital on a project that included offering 10 pieces of fruit for $3 in food desert communities.
These efforts appear to be paying off. A recent report by Gallagher’s Consulting Group found that the Chicago food desert population has been reduced by 39%.
Casey argued that in some cases the physical distances of stores has gotten better, but access has not. Many of the residents in these areas do not have cars, and public transportation often does not provide an efficient way to travel to stores that offer fresh foods.
“Bringing a store into the food desert does improve access for many people, and there can still be challenges to not only getting to the store, but choosing the healthy foods that are required for a healthy diet,” Gallagher said.