SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Wegmans Food Markets is helping a group of local organizations bring fresh produce year-round to “food deserts” in this city in central New York state by means of a roving delivery truck.
The truck — dubbed the Farm Fresh Mobile Market, “a market for the people” — makes a dozen stops each week Monday through Friday in lower-income areas to sell produce to residents who have limited access to affordable and nutritious foods.
Inspired by a similar program in Oakland, Calif., called the People's Grocery, the Mobile Market was launched in 2007 under the auspices of the Central New York Regional Market Authority, a local farmers' market that provided the produce, with support from the Gifford Foundation, the Onandaga County Department of Aging and Youth and local residents.
Last year, the program was handed over to the Southside Interfaith CDC (Community Development Corp.) based here, which began receiving voluntary support from Wegmans while procuring produce, sometimes at reduced costs, from the Regional Market Authority. Other current supporters include the Allyn Foundation, the Onondaga County Health Department, the Community Health Foundation of Western and Central New York and SUNY Morrisville.
Originally targeting the Southside community here, the Mobile Market expanded its scope this year to include other sections of this city, noted Brian Moore, director, foundation initiatives, Gifford Foundation, a private foundation here serving the central New York region. The Southside area, he said, has few fresh food options, particularly since its only chain supermarket, a P&C Foods store, closed last year. The area's corner stores offer only low-quality, high-priced produce.
The Mobile Market visits a variety of locations — what Moore called “pockets of food inaccessibility” — including senior residences, public assistance housing, a Head Start office, an Educational Opportunity Center, a community garden and a local community center. “We're developing a route so that people know where to flag us down,” he said.
Payment for the produce, which is priced below market levels, can be made in cash, EBT cards and WIC funds.
As part of the program, Onandaga County Department of Aging and Youth distributes information on healthy recipes incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Mobile Market has been “well received,” especially by seniors, but by others as well, said Moore. “There's definitely an audience for such a project.” He acknowledged that the program needs to develop a way to measure its impact on the community.
Last year, Wegmans, based in Rochester, N.Y., began giving the Syracuse Mobile Market program access to local growers (of strawberries and squash, for example) that supply the chain, as well as to the same pricing level the chain receives, said Evelyn Carter, Wegmans' Syracuse Division consumer affairs manager. Wegmans also sells produce to the program at cost, said Moore. The Mobile Market staff has also been able to attend Wegmans' training program for customer service, which includes “in-depth training on produce handling and freshness,” as well as instruction on produce recipes that can be shared with shoppers, Carter said. The chain also helped design and provide the design elements for the delivery truck's exterior.
All of Wegmans' contributions are voluntary, noted Carter. “One of Wegmans' priorities is to make a difference in every community we serve.”
Wegmans admires the Mobile Market's “creative approach,” which attracts children in the way an ice cream truck would, said Carter. “We believe if you appeal to children, that will have a lifelong impact on building healthy eating habits.” Wegmans, she added, does its own outreach to local schools and churches, conducting produce demonstrations and giving out samples. The chain also provides busing service at senior centers to local Wegmans' stores.
Wegmans operates 10 stores in the Syracuse area, but does not plan to open any additional stores in the city, said Carter. Syracuse has a population of about 150,000.
A SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS?
While mobile markets are addressing a need, some observers have questions about their long-term viability.
Judith Bell, president of PolicyLink, Oakland, Calif., a nonprofit institute that addresses the food desert issue, said that a mobile market effort represents “a very important step because it's a recognition of the [food desert] problem and an effort to get people access to healthy food.”
But unless it has a sustainable business model, “it's contingent on the will of either philanthropy or policy makers,” she added. Philanthropy may be short-lived while public financing is being strained by budget cuts, she noted. “You don't yet have a model that people can feel confident about so that you would see a ton of replication.”
Bell pointed out that the People's Grocery, the mobile market initiative in Oakland, was stopped “because they couldn't make it work economically.”
The Farm Fresh Mobile Market in Syracuse is now dependent on financial support from foundations and local agencies, but Moore said that the intent of those involved with the program is to develop it into a self-sustaining operation. Southside Interfaith CDC “is currently receiving help from our local SCORE [a national network of veteran business executives offering free mentoring and training] chapter to develop a business plan that will do just that,” he said. “All involved understand that it will take time to develop the sustainability needed to become self-sufficient, but are working to reach that goal.”
Even if a stable model does evolve for mobile markets, for Bell they would still be a “piece of the puzzle,” not a substitute for a supermarket. James Johnson-Piett, principal of Urbane Development, Philadelphia, and formerly program manager for Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing Initiative, also believes that mobile markets “make sense as part of a larger, more comprehensive strategy to create dynamic regional food systems.”
Moore, too, acknowledged that the Mobile Market program isn't viewed as the only solution to food deserts in Syracuse but “could be one part of a holistic solution.” Another project under way is an effort to develop a food cooperative, which so far has resulted in a produce store that is open on Saturdays. The city of Syracuse is also working on identifying a store that could replace the P&C outlet that closed, and there are also discussions about how to link Syracuse with the surrounding farming communities.
Elsewhere in the U.S., other mobile market projects have been launched to address underserved areas of Detroit and Troy, N.Y., as well as in parts of Pennsylvania and Tennessee, Moore noted.