Food Oasis on Wheels

Upon first glance, you might assume an ice cream truck was pulling into Cleveland Elementary School in Spartanburg County, SC. Yet there isn’t a repeating, blaring jingle coming from any speakers and there isn’t an ice cream menu plastered to the side. This is the Hub City Farmers’ Market’s Mobile Market. This decoratively painted, 16-foot long, refurbished van is serving as a “mobile farmers’ market” to residents in northern Spartanburg. The Mobile Market is meeting a need: getting affordable fresh fruits and vegetables to some of Spartanburg County’s underserved communities.

Building a Market
How the Mobile Market came to be is just as important as the need it fills. Through gathering research from university partners and input from community residents, health advocates helped create the mobile market. Researchers at the University of South Carolina Upstate conducted a community food assessment in August 2009. The assessment showed what the food landscape looked like for the County. The findings revealed food deserts – areas where there is limited access to obtaining healthy, affordable foods – within pockets of Spartanburg County. The study states, “residents of Inman, Boiling Springs, Woodruff and the City of Spartanburg are at very high risk of obesity and its related health consequences.” It also found that more than 70% of county residents were overweight or obese and more than 77% of residents do not eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. In March 2010, the Spartanburg Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities partnership decided to work with the community to do something about this issue. They held a community forum in north Spartanburg.  The purpose of the meeting was for community members to brainstorm solutions to three questions:

•    How can we improve access to healthy eating?
•    How can we improve access to recreational areas?
•    How can we get more people engaged in active living?

After prioritizing the responses related to healthy eating, it was clear that the community wanted to create their own version of a farmers’ market. A 15 member leadership council was formed following the forum, which included members of the neighborhood association, a pastor and the recreation center director, among others. The leadership council, along with The Hub City Farmers’ Market and Partners for Active Living, collaborated with the Mary Black Foundation, a local foundation focusing on health and education, to create a mobile produce market.

For and By the Community
The community’s engagement in the process didn’t end there. The mobile market was piloted on four Tuesdays in September 2010, and the leadership committee chose the stops it would make, which included Cleveland Elementary School, Victoria Gardens Apartments, and Chapel Street Park. At one of the first stops, a group of women, known as Sisters in Motion, included a dance piece, and speeches were made by a resident, a Mary Black Foundation representative, and a major partner. While this level of celebration may not follow the mobile market to every stop in the future, the fanfare is certainly deserved: the mobile market is bringing healthy food to the community as well as unifying residents. Other partners include the farmers’ market vendors, the school district, Spartanburg Housing Authority, Hub Cycle bicycle lending program of Partners for Active Living and the City Parks and Recreation Department. The Hub Cycle bicycle lending program went wherever the Mobile Market went, as they connected a trailer full of bikes to the back of the Mobile Market. Partners for Active Living saw this as an opportunity for a literal and figurative connection; the bike lending program was a natural extension of the Mobile Market, giving people the opportunity to eat healthy and stay physically active.

Last September served as a pilot, and the partnership is continuing to learn what makes the Mobile Market most successful. In the pilot season, the Mobile Market accepted Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) benefits, which will continue in the 2011 season. This season, market coordinators are also planning to go to existing events, whether that is community events or festivals, church or school functions and take the Mobile Market to more rural areas in the county. Another change for the 2011 season, and why tracking sales is important, is that selections offered this year will be based on sales results from last season. The partnership also plans to bring in assorted new produce, which is intended to encourage and introduce people to try new produce.

Sustaining the Project
Even though the Mobile Market has been successful, in order for it to be sustainable with the time and resources they have, Partners for Active Living and the Hub City Farmers’ Market are not committing to getting to all of the areas of the county where it has been requested. What is most important is that the mobile market is getting people thinking about access to healthy foods. The mobile market is an achievement towards helping community residents access healthier food options, but the organizers aren’t stopping to pat themselves on the back just yet.  As Rochelle Williams of Partners for Active Living said, we “see it as the beginning of the conversation, not just something we accomplished.”

Nonetheless, for many of the residents living in the food deserts identified in the 2009 study, they now have a food oasis rolling through their neighborhoods.

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July, 2011

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