Farmer’s Market on the Move

January 18, 2016

JeffVanderLou, a northern St.Louis suburb, is a food desert. With convenience stores meeting the nutritional needs of many area residents, the neighborhood offers little in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables.

According to census data, the neighborhood is home to approximately 5,500 residents, with a median household income of $18,617. Its residents have recently suffered from the closing of the neighborhood’s only grocery store, Schnucks on North Grand Boulevard having shuttered in 2014.

The stakes for food desert residents are significant. Food insecurity can lead to malnourishment, stunted growth, and even increased risk of mental health disorders among children. Nationally, about 23.5 million people nationwide live in food deserts, half of whom are low-income, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

JeffVanderLou is clearly one of many low-income neighborhoods across the U.S. in need of a sea change in food security. But instead of waiting for a new grocery store to open its doors, three Washington University students figured out a way to bring the good stuff to the area’s residents.

St. Louis Mobile Market is the brainchild of three Washington University students: Colin Dowling, Tei Azad, and Jeremy Goss. Three years ago, they began developing the idea for a bus filled with locally-grown fare that they could drive to the most food-deprived neighborhoods.

“I was learning as much as I could about issues facing St. Louis,” Goss said. “Food insecurity frustrated me more than anything, so I thought: If you couldn’t get people to the food, then maybe you could get food to the people.”

On Dec. 19, 2015 the trio launched St. Louis MetroMarket, a “grocery store on wheels to bridge physical, financial, and educational barriers in food deserts.” What kind of wheels, you ask? A donated city bus, kitted out to accommodate wares from over 60 local farmers. Originally slated to launch in July, the project was delayed as the retrofit took longer than originally anticipated.

The interior of the MetroMarket Bus.

The interior of the MetroMarket Bus.

The effort was funded by an initial $75,000 grant from Incarnate World Foundation. To sustain their enterprise, MetroMarket has established sponsorship from Saint Louis University Hospital and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. In exchange for patronage, MetroMarket will visit the hospitals on a weekly basis and provide staff with access to healthy vittles.

Parked in the JeffVanderLou section of St. Louis on its first Saturday morning, customers lined up around the block while a number of others waited in their cars to avoid the 55-degree chill as the line wound down.

A woman approached Goss during MetroMarket’s launch and told him that she and her son had been following the nonprofit on social media leading up to its debut.

“She told me, ‘my son wants to be a chef, he looks up to you’”, Goss said. “That was so very humbling to be a source of inspiration to a kid in the community.”

Besides selling locally grown fruit, vegetables and other foods, MetroMarket also offers cooking demonstrations. On launch day, Danielle Cherry of Operation Food Search provided a demo in putting together a citrus kale salad. The bus driver, Marilyn Williams, handed out chili recipes.

Despite the enthusiastic response, MetroMarket’s founders are cognizant of the challenges ahead.

“It doesn’t solve the problem by any stretch of the imagination,” Goss said. “Those communities still need a full-fledged grocery store.”

For MetroMarket, a route expansion is in the near future. The three founders will work with Saint Louis University’s College of Public Health and Social Justice to measure the impact of their programming. MetroMarket will resume in April 2016 with plans to serve the JeffVanderLou neighborhood every Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Goss said he will likely get at least one more bus in the near future, and may expand the project to the point where it serves multiple St. Louis neighborhoods.

Luke Harold headshot(115)Luke Harold is a journalist who has written about farmers markets, education, local government, and a wide array of other topics. He splits his time between Los Angeles and New Jersey.

Article Type: Industry Insights