Providing Fresh Produce to Urban Food Deserts

Mobile Food Vendors Struggle to Serve Inner-City Families

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Emily Broad Leib is co-founder of Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, the first law school clinic devoted to providing legal and policy solutions for the health, economic and environmental challenges facing the current food system.

Lisa Johanon is executive director of the nonprofit Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp. that runs Peaches and Greens, a mobile food vendor serving food deserts in Detroit's inner city.

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Posted: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 4:00 pm

Through a variety of methods that range from inexpensive carts to converted school buses, food security advocates in many cities sell fresh fruits and vegetables directly to low-income customers living in urban food deserts.

Increasing access to affordable produce isn’t simple or cheap, according to mobile produce supporters, but it isn’t impossible either. Comprehensive and effective strategies incorporated among local government officials, volunteers and potential customers can sustain these mobile farmers markets for the long term.

If successful, a mobile vendor can be just as popular as a neighborhood ice cream truck to area children.

In the summer months, 25 percent of Detroit-based Peaches and Greens’ customers are children. That’s a good thing, said Lisa Johanon, executive director of the nonprofit Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp., which runs Peaches and Greens. The business started in 2008 and is one of the longest running mobile produce trucks in the nation. It is a subsidiary of Central Detroit Christian CDC, though run independently as a for-profit business.

Changing eating habits in the inner city is "going to take a lifetime," Johanon said. "That’s why we work with the children. We are building anew with them.”

The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts – areas with limited access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. More than half of this population is categorized as low income. “This lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related illness, such as diabetes and heart disease,” according to the agency.

A desire to reduce – and eventually eliminate – food deserts is on the radar of government officials at all levels. For example, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has a task force looking for ways to improve fresh farm food access for the working poor and low-income communities, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors convened a Food Policy Taskforce in 2012. While food deserts are an issue throughout the nation, one potential solution – mobile farmers markets – thrives at the local level.

In her research article, “All (Food) Politics is Local: Increasing Food Access Through Local Government Action,” Emily Broad Leib, associate director of the Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, encourages localities not yet active in food policy to join the more than 130 cities and counties in the U.S. and Canada that have local food policy councils.

“Local governments should use their greatest asset, the ability to work closely with their constituents, to learn how the community purchases and prepares food, respond to the community’s unique needs, and implement targeted and effective policy interventions,” Broad Leib wrote in the Harvard Law and Policy Review in September.

Broad Leib co-founded and directs Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, the first law school clinic in the nation devoted to studying and providing legal and policy solutions for the health, economic and environmental challenges facing the current food system. She provides guidance for nonprofit organizations and government agencies throughout the U.S. Through her position, she recommends food laws and policies aimed at increasing access to healthy foods.

The two main challenges for mobile food vendors are permits and costs, Broad Leib said.

“In a lot of cities, mobile vendors are not allowed,” she said. A permit for operating a produce cart simply doesn’t exist and the majority of people don’t know how to apply for a variance. Cities that streamline the permitting process and reduce permit fees will reap the benefits of mobile food vendors, she added.

“Ultimately we want residents to use the mobile food vendors. Cities need to make it so they can operate affordably,” Broad Leib said.

In terms of cost, mobile farmers markets have difficulties earning a profit. Many start their engines with enthusiasm each summer, but fail to stay in business after a few years.

Johanon agreed that putting affordable produce in the hands of low-income individuals is a daily struggle.

“When Peaches and Greens started, other similar programs started, but they have closed their doors after one or two years. It didn’t take hold,” Johanon said. “It’s hard to make it. It’s hard to break even.”

When Peaches and Greens started in 2008, the organization on average sold $400 worth of produce daily. Now it typically sells $200 worth.

“We are not giving up because of the people,” Johanon said. “The reality is that our community has 22 liquor stores and one grocery store. Seventy percent of the population doesn’t have a car. We are still providing a service that is needed.”

In order to make a profit, Johanon said Peaches and Greens constantly revises its business plan to be “on the cutting edge.”

“We want to redesign Peaches and Greens. We want to move toward a co-op model, but not until it’s a sustainable business. We don’t have a lot of sales in the winter months. We still need to figure out how to make it work. It’s always about trying to break even,” she said.

In today’s economy, food vendors at all levels are facing challenges to operate in the black. Due to its low overhead costs, mobile groceries might have an advantage in low-income areas, Broad Leib said.

“One thing we see is that the grocery store has left because of the cost of property in urban areas and the owners saying that the resident population is not going to buy these types of items,” Broad Leib said. “A mobile vendor gets around those issues. They don’t have the high property values. The mobile vendor is a way to get into those neighborhoods and show that people will buy these types of food. They start showing that there is a demand. Then it is more likely that new stores will open in these areas.”

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that can be applied in all food deserts “because local needs and conditions differ, priorities for food policy in different municipalities will also differ,” Broad Leib wrote.

“The best advice would be if people are interested, sit down with farmers, vendors, and customers, and figure out what the barriers are. Talk to them about what they think will work,” Broad Leib said.

Local governments should remember that “food is a community issue, food is a cultural issue, and, most importantly, food is a personal issue,” she added.

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