Published March 7, 2019
The little boy and his mother boarded the bus, picked out some produce, paid and took off. Just two more customers served by the Farm Express mobile market in the Phoenix area. So thought Elyse Guidas, its executive director.
Then, a few days later, she got an email from the boy’s mother. She explained that her son has autism and has always been a picky eater. She’s struggled to get him to eat fresh, healthy foods. But their visit to the mobile market that day changed him. Her son loves buses and other big vehicles. He had never seen something like that before, an old school bus retrofitted to meet the needs of a mobile market.
“That connection for him was so unique and so exciting that he actually tried a bite of everything that mom bought at the market that day,” Guidas recalled, stating the case for how mobile markets make an impact.
“It provides a unique opportunity for us to create connection in our community in the way that other markets can’t. And it provides opportunity for people to start to explore their own food choices and find their preferences and build their community in ways that other places might not,” she said.
Guidas spoke to a room full of mobile market operators in a conference room in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences on Tuesday. They came to Buffalo from all over the country — Arizona, the Carolinas, Boston, St. Louis, Ohio — for the first-ever mobile produce market summit. The two-day conference was organized by Lucia Leone, assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, School of Public Health and Health Professions, and colleagues from UB.
The goal: to encourage mobile markets to learn from one another, and researchers, by sharing stories, fundraising models, best practices and more, all in an effort to return to their respective communities armed with the tools and knowledge that will enable them to better serve the neighborhoods in which they operate.
The summit featured panel discussions on healthy food incentive programs, market operations and logistics, mobile market vehicle design, community engagement and marketing, and tools for long-term success.
In her welcome address, Leone explained how the summit came about.
Her research focuses on developing organizational and community-based interventions to increase access to healthy foods in lower income and underserved communities. As a doctoral student in North Carolina in 2008, Leone started a non-profit organization to do exactly that.
The organization launched a mobile market, called the Veggie Van, two years later. Leone found only one other organization willing to offer assistance on starting a mobile market program.
“We’re so excited now that we’re helping to build this community of people who can all come together and work on mobile market programs,” she said.
While running the Veggie Van, Leone and her team conducted extensive research and evaluation to understand what was working, how their program could be more effective and whether it was changing people’s diets. As a result, the Veggie Van morphed from an operating mobile market into a research-based program and model for running mobile markets. “We’re working with helping other mobile markets to get started using best practices and the things that we learned through both our own research and working and learning from folks like you,” Leone said.
The Veggie Van project received $3.1 million from the National Cancer Institute to help understand the impact of mobile markets. The research team is in the process of selecting eight organizations to serve as partners to either start or expand mobile markets. The team had planned to bring those partners to Buffalo for training when Leone learned that a mobile market in St. Louis wanted to do the same thing.
“It was a natural fit,” said Lucas Signorelli, executive director of the St. Louis MetroMarket.
Signorelli talked about how the MetroMarket benefited from collaboration with peer organizations in cities across the U.S. “It’s really improved our organization, and therefore it’s improved the impact we’re having in the St. Louis community and I’m extremely grateful for that.”
As keynoter Guidas spoke about seeing grocery store after grocery store in her Phoenix neighborhood close — one’s now a pawn shop, another is a thrift store and another burned down — she stressed the critical void mobile markets fill by providing access to healthy options in food deserts.
“It makes me emotional because I know that you are all working in communities doing the same thing and creating those opportunities for the community to have the freedom to make their own choices, to build these connections, to fall in love with healthy foods and recipes and all of these things that we get to do on a daily basis,” she said. “And so this work is important.”