REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

And a researcher’s data-driven map will point the portable grocer to the city’s neediest areas.

In many low-income areas in cities across the United States, lack of access to healthy food is a well-documented concern. Flint, Michigan, is no exception.

It’s an example of an urban food desert—defined by the USDA as predominantly low-income and situated more than one mile away from the nearest grocery store. Flint saw the closure of five of its last six large chain grocery stores over the past five years; its poverty rate is 40 percent.

The solution to urban food deserts is seemingly straightforward: increase availability. Cities have approached this concept in myriad ways: Los Angeles permits people to host farmers’ markets on residential properties; a town in Wisconsin experimented with upping the quantities of fresh produce available in stores.

But a new mobile grocery store set to launch this August in Flint is taking a more targeted approach. A partnership between the Downtown YMCA, the Neighborhood Engagement Hub, and Flint Food Works, the mobile market will carry fresh wares from the farmer-run Local Grocer; available stock will rotate in response to requests from customers, and the operation will accept food-stamp vouchers through programs like WIC and SNAP.

When the market launches, it will test-drive a couple different ways of navigating Flint, figuring out how best to serve in-need neighborhoods through a system of trial and error, says Pam Bailey, the director of fundraising and public relations for the YMCA. One method will take a leaf out of the proverbial ice-cream truck book and drive slowly through Flint’s streets, blasting music and beckoning customers with the lure of not sugary treats, but fresh produce. Alternatively, the market will dock in front of community hubs like churches or rec centers for a few hours at a time, while people drop by to pick up goods. Bailey says that local convenience stores have been eager to welcome the mobile grocer to their doorsteps, hoping that the new business venture will draw fresh crowds to their stores and boost customers’ interest in a more permanent stock of fresh goods.

The city has played host to a farmer’s market since the early 20th century. In recent years, says Richard Sadler, a Michigan State University public health professor, the Flint Farmer’s Market has experimented with two satellite operations. But the success of those ventures was dictated by the availability of host sites that could provide the electricity and space needed to run a viable grocery. The results, Sadler adds, were disappointing.  

But this past spring, Bailey received word from the Michigan YMCA network that funding would be available for a “veggie van,” should Flint want to launch one (Grand Rapids had already done so; Kansas City and Cincinnati have rolled produce into their food deserts in trucks, too). As the Flint YMCA moved forward with their own model, they tapped into a network of mobile markets around the country—Bailey estimates they spoke with representatives from around 40, gathering insights.

But where, exactly, a mobile grocer could venture to best serve residents was a question specific to Flint, and it’s one that Sadler had already begun independently investigating before plans for the forthcoming mobile market got off the ground. As an academic interested in the interplay between geography and health, Sadler wanted to devise a way to optimize the location of a mobile market to target the most in-need neighborhoods.

In Flint, “need for better access to food is something you see in every quadrant of the city,” says Bailey. But Sadler’s research, published in The International Journal of Health Geographics, offers what Bailey calls “wayfaring signs” for where a portable grocer would be of greatest use. Sadler began by drafting a map of Flint layered with indicators for five key social and physical factors that affect healthy food consumption. Two factors—socioeconomic distress and availability of healthy food—determine the level of need; the remaining three—number of bus stops, population density, and presence of community hubs—predict the success of a new retail venture in the area.

International Journal of Health Geographics

Together, the interplay of the five factors signpost areas throughout the city where the mobile grocer should go. But this being a community solution for a community need, Sadler says he felt it would be presumptuous of him to independently rank the significance of each of these categories in determining ideal locations. Instead, Sadler sourced input from 11 local food and anti-hunger organizations, and tasked representatives from each with ordering the factors by importance.

Socioeconomic distress and availability of healthy food consistently pulled more weight than any of the three more retail-driven variables. Factoring in this information, Sadler mapped the city of Flint on a sliding scale of suitability for a mobile market, and overlaid those geographic areas with markers indicating areas specifically recommended by the panel of 11 experts. Sadler’s map, below, shows need primarily clustered in the northwest quadrant of the city.

International Journal of Health Geographics

While the mobile market will use Sadler’s map as a starting-off point, Bailey emphasizes that when it comes to filling a community need, data can’t tell the whole story. The most important thing Bailey learned from consulting with various cities about their experiences is that responsiveness is key. She says representatives told her the same thing: “They can tell us what’s worked for them, but it’s totally dependent on the people you’re trying to reach,” Bailey says. “All of the markets are different: they all use different trucks, different business models. You have to figure out your community needs, and tweak it from there.”

The YMCA and the Flint Neighborhood Engagement Hub will host conversations with residents and community groups, asking: “What do you want to see in the market? What do you not have access to that you need?” Bailey says. While the first stock from the Local Grocery will likely be fresh fruits and vegetables, the organizations behind the grocery truck are prepared to be flexible in their offerings, as well as where they bring them.

While access to food is sparse, Bailey sees the wheeled market cutting a path through the city and filling gaps that she hopes will one day be closed by a more stable supply of fresh, healthy wares in stores, and a clientele who continue to seek it out. “We want to work ourselves out of a job,” she says.

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