The next wave of food trucks aren't whipping up Korean tacos for adventurous foodies or slinging ice cream to kids. Instead, they're delivering fresh meat and produce in an effort to improve public health in low-income communities.
A few months ago, a Chicago non-profit launched Fresh Moves, a one-aisle grocery store on a bus that sells pineapples, mangoes, collard greens, onions and other fresh fruits and vegetables in West Side neighborhoods like Lawndale and Austin, where locals have minimal access to fresh produce. A 2006 study by consultant Mari Gallagher linked these food deserts – defined by the USDA as a census tract more than a mile from a grocery store – to increased diabetes and other diet-related maladies, as well as premature death.
Four Chicago residents developed the concept after deciding that opening their own grocery store or waiting for big retailers would take too long. They asked the city to donate one of its fleet to serve as a farmer's market on wheels. A year later, the Chicago Transit Authority sold an aging bus to the group for $1. Following the installation of shelves and refrigeration units with design help from Architecture for Humanity Chicago, the bus hit the streets in June and was greeted with lines of customers.
"We've proven there's demand in the community for high-quality affordable produce," says co-founder Sheelah Muhammad, who has started work on an expansion plan. "We definitely want to add more vehicles and expand our coverage areas."
The coverage area for mobile markets reaches far beyond Chicago. Similar initiatives are popping up in food deserts all over the country. In Buffalo, the Massachusetts Avenue Project launched a seasonal mobile market in a converted RV in 2009. Last year, a Salt Lake City food co-op launched a monthly pop-up market that travels to under-served areas.
Since May, Kansas City's Beans and Greens has set up fresh meat and produce markets in parking lots using a refrigerated truck. The Fulton County Cooperative launched the bi-weekly Fulton Fresh produce truck to serve Southwest Atlanta in June. Arcadia, a sustainable food non-profit in Washington, D.C., is set to debut its new mobile market this month, in a retrofitted, biodiesel-powered school bus. New Jersey's agriculture department is developing a network of mobile farmer's markets to travel to under-served areas.
The concept first came to life in 2003, when the People's Grocery began delivering fresh produce to food desert communities of West Oakland in a solar-powered, biodiesel-fueled converted mail truck.
That mobile market was suspended a few years ago when the organization shifted gears to open a brick-and-mortar grocery, but demand for these groceries on wheels is likely to remain high for some time. The USDA has mapped more than 6500 food desert census tracts across the country, with a combined population over 25 million.
Even the Windy City, where the latest findings by Gallagher found that food deserts had shrunk 40 percent, still has nearly 400,000 people with limited access to fresh food. Many are hoping to see a Fresh Moves bus on their street soon.