Bus grocery store aims to close gaps in the food system

Twin Cities Mobile Market
The Twin Cities Mobile Market operates out of a retrofitted bus.
Jon Collins / MPR News

The Twin Cities Mobile Market is a former Metro Transit bus outfitted with shiny metal shelves, coolers and a freezer. But it still looks so much like a public bus that riders often try to flag it down as it makes 17 weekly stops in St. Paul.

The bus aims to close gaps in the food system by tailoring the groceries it sells to the needs of specific communities — and bringing the store to them.

Mohamed Warsame was visiting the bus outside his apartment building on a recent day.

"We're looking about milk, about rice, many things, vegetables," Warsame said.

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Among the finds for Warsame were collard greens, which he refers to by the Swahili word "sukuma." He said the greens are known for improving digestion.

A frozen package of halal goat meat also caught Warsame's eye.

"We serve many different people from the Somali community," said market manager Leah Driscoll. "Many of our Somali customers will eat only halal meats, and so we knew that was a definite need in several of our stops — it was kind of a no-brainer."

The price helps too, Warsame said. Food at the mobile market is typically at or below market rates.

In an effort to better serve the target populations, the project's organizers polled communities at each stop about special items like they'd like the bus to carry. By launch, they'd gathered input from 500 residents.

"All the food you see on the bus was developed through a community engagement process," Driscoll said. "We're constantly adding new items every week based on customer requests."

A recent addition was non-lactose milk.

Driscoll said the bus stops at places like public housing complexes, senior apartments or schools, where residents may not have easy access to the specialized products available at supermarkets.

"We see a lot of the neighborhoods we serve are filled with corner stores that carry a lot of junk food or fast food restaurants, but there aren't the full service grocery stores where people can afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables," Driscoll said.

Twin Cities Mobile Market
The Twin Cities Mobile Market made a stop at Jackson Street Village, which serves families that have experienced homelessness.
Jon Collins / MPR News

Nancy Polancheck recently was at the bus picking up some vegetables for her elderly father, who lives in Parkway Gardens senior apartments. Her father has trouble with stairs, so usually she or her brother buy groceries for him at a supermarket. The arrival of the mobile market has offered him another easy option to get fresh food, and workers have even volunteered to run orders up to his apartment.

"I would say the closest grocery store is probably three miles for a big one, but he doesn't drive, so this is great, just the convenience and getting the fresh food," Polancheck said. "It's nice for us kids that our dad has this option for him too."

But a focus on healthy food doesn't mean the bus offers just fruits and veggies, which people may have difficulty turning into a complete, filling meal.

"If families aren't able to access fruits and vegetables, they're probably struggling to access the other basic building blocks necessary for a complete meal," Driscoll said. "That's what we're trying to do here is provide all the basic essentials."

The most recent numbers from the United States Department of Agriculture show that almost 15 percent of Americans experience food insecurity, which means they don't have consistent access to enough food to maintain their health. Chery Smith, a food science and nutrition professor at the University of Minnesota, said it's no mystery why people have trouble finding healthy food.

"Here in America, and here in the Twin Cities, some people will tell you that there's a lot of food out there, it's just trying to get access to it," Smith said. "A lot of Minnesotans actually live in what we'd call food deserts, so it could be several blocks or small communities that don't have a large supermarket in it or that might not have the kinds of foods you need, like fruits and vegetables."

For many people, access to healthy food is not just a matter of cost, but also proximity.

"If you don't have a car that works very well or if you're using public transportation, you can go there, but getting back with a substantial amount of groceries if you have a family of four, is very hard," Smith said.

By offering items that people have traditionally used in their cooking, the project's organizers hope residents feel more comfortable shopping at the mobile market. Caelli Wright, youth case manager at Jackson Street Village, which provides transitional housing for formerly homeless families, said the bus appears to be catching on with residents, many of whom were initially wary.

"A lot of communities without cars don't have the luxury of driving to the the grocery store if they have an ingredient they forgot," Wright said.

There are already many projects from food shelves to reduced price school lunches that aim to reduce food insecurity. The Twin Cities Mobile Market is designed to fill one more gap and help stretch families' often limited food money, said Andy Brown of the Wilder Foundation.

"It's unlikely that people shopping at a food shelf would be able to buy all their food in one visit there for the whole week. We anticipate that they're spending other dollars on food," Brown said. "The Mobile Market is stretching those dollars as much as possible, and then making affordable, healthy options available."

The bus cost about $60,000 to buy and retrofit, and the project is expected to cost between $150,000 to $200,000 to run every year. The bus' goal, said Brown, is to make the project sustainable, which is part of why they're charging for food at all.

"We want to be helping to improve community health outcomes over the long term," Brown said. "So having food available at affordable prices, offsets that costs and makes sure the program can be in it for the long term."

Organizers hope to raise enough money to buy and outfit a bus so they can expand the operation to Minneapolis within the next year.