This Food Market on Wheels Is Driven to Serve Low-Income Communities

It's not unusual for a farmers market to dispense healthy, fresh produce by vehicle. It is very unusual, however, for one to target so-called "food deserts" and accomplish a hefty portion of their business by accepting food stamps and vouchers from other government assistance programs.
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It’s not unusual for a farmers market to dispense healthy, fresh produce by vehicle, moving from one location to another as the hours and days go by. There’s one that sets up in a school parking lot in my neighborhood on Saturday mornings.

It is very unusual, however, for one to target so-called “food deserts” – underserved, generally low-income neighborhoods without their own full-service markets – and accomplish a hefty portion of their business by accepting food stamps and vouchers from other government assistance programs for the needy. That’s why the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, a mission-driven nonprofit, is a very special brand of food vendor. In particular, meet Arcadia’s Mobile Market, “a 28-foot, farm-stand-on-wheels that distributes local, sustainably produced food to underserved communities in the Washington, DC area.”

Hold your applause until the end, because this story only gets better. From the Center’s website:

“The mission of Arcadia’s Mobile Market is to improve access to healthy, affordable food regardless of where you live or how much you earn. The market does this by operating regularly scheduled stops in low-income, food-insecure communities; offering high quality, locally grown, sustainably produced farm products at affordable prices; accepting all forms of payment, including food assistance benefits; doubling the purchasing power of food assistance benefits through a ‘Bonus Bucks’ program; and providing educational resources for how to prepare the market’s offerings in nutritious, cost-effective, delicious, and easy ways.”

According to the site, the Mobile Market – a bright green, converted school bus – makes weekly stops at community and recreation centers, low-income living facilities, parks, and health care providers.

In addition, Arcadia places special emphasis on local schools, where the Market provides regular educational visits to teach kids about farmers markets, nutrition, and the food system. The Center sets one morning aside each week for school visits, allowing teachers to bring up to 30 students at a time on a “field trip to the playground” for about 45 minutes, or the length of their typical class period:

“Each classroom visit begins with an introduction to Arcadia’s Mobile Market Staff, followed by a rotation through two hands-on activities. Through these activities, students will learn about seasonality, the benefits of eating locally, the differences between conventional and sustainable agriculture, and how to prepare a balanced, nutritious meal. The students will then sample a farm fresh food from the Market’s offerings.”

The bulk of the food offered by the market is grown on Arcadia Farm, located outside of DC on Woodlawn Estate in nearby Northern Virginia. The farm has its own educational programs, and grows its products sustainably, “in harmony with nature, using only sustainable growing practices such as cover cropping, integrated pest management, low tillage, composting, crop rotation and no synthetic sprays.” Arcadia is also working to establish a “food hub” to supply sustainably grown food to local school meals and other wholesale markets that address underserved populations. The Center sees its mission as extending beyond its own operations to “a network of regional farmers to create a more sustainable food distribution system and expand the production of sustainable, small-scale agriculture in the National Capital region.”

Writing in The Washington Post, Becky Krystal reports that Arcadia’s programs, including the farm and Mobile Market, are the brainchild of the Center’s founder Michael Babin, a restaurateur, and Benjamin Bartley, Arcadia’s food access director. (I first learned about Arcadia through Krystal’s excellent article.) Bartley, Krystal writes, targets underserved neighborhoods by analyzing data, looking at where stores and other farmers’ markets operate, the density of homes enrolled in federal assistance programs, median income, and prospective sites that could host the market and assist with outreach.

One of the ideas is to show that these districts could support regular, bricks-and-mortar markets. “We want to work ourselves out of a job,” Bartley told Krystal. “We are a bridge. This is not a permanent solution.”

Wednesdays are the Mobile Market’s busiest days, when the operation makes two-hour stops at each of three locations. In the morning, it visits the Congress Heights Senior Wellness Center in Southeast DC. In the early afternoon, it stops at Children’s National Medical Center (known locally as Children’s Hospital) and, in the late afternoon, it checks in at the LeDroit Park neighborhood.

Krystal’s article describes the process:

“The group efficiently sets up shop at the wellness center. Tents and an awning come out to keep people and products cool. Crates holding bundles of greens, boxes of strawberries and glass jars filled with herbs are placed on the side of the bus on removable metal shelves. The market also sells local meat, eggs, dairy and honey, which, like the produce, is a mix of items from Arcadia and other local farms . . .

“When it’s time to move on, [summer fellow Anna] Hymanson sets the timer, as the group is informally competitive about how quickly they can break everything down. A lot of precise stacking is required, using one of what [culinary educator JuJu] Harris affectionately calls Bartley’s ‘Ben-ventions,’ a series of wooden frames that prevents things from sliding around.”

Next month Arcadia will add a second Mobile Market vehicle and eight additional weekly stops.

I’ll close with this short video about the Mobile Market, one of three videos featured on Arcadia’s website:

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media. Kaid’s latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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