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‘Fresh Moves’ Produce Market: Greening the (Food) Desert

With help from Architecture for Humanity, a mobile food market is bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to some of Chicago’s neediest neighborhoods

By Angie Schmitt

It’s a Friday morning in the west Chicago neighborhood of Garfield Park, and a brightly colored bus is idling out front of a corner store advertising cigarettes, cold cuts, and pop. From a van in the opposite corner, a handful of people are unloading and reloading a parade of produce: tomatoes, kiwifruit, pineapple, kale, green beans, mint, bananas, and grapes, some of which is grown locally. In about an hour, the former Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus, sheathed in advertising that says “Fresh Moves Mobile Produce Market,” is packed and ready to go.

Unfolding on this corner is the new model for fresh produce retailing in Chicago. It begins here in Garfield Park, and then winds its way to North Lawndale, then on to a school and a senior housing facility in the Austin neighborhood. Everywhere this bus travels is part of a food desert—neighborhoods where mangos and radishes are scarce but where fried chicken and potato chips plentiful. This is a national problem, but one that’s especially pronounced in Chicago, particularly on the historically impoverished South Side and west side.

Nationally, about 2.3 million U.S. families live more than one mile from a grocery store and lack access to an automobile, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The landmark study from six years ago that popularized the term “food desert” found that 600,000 people in Chicago alone suffered from limited access to healthy foods. Minority communities are particularly vulnerable to the negative health impacts caused by a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Research has found that African-Americans living in food deserts are significantly more likely to die from a poor diet.

As the Fresh Moves bus winds its way through the streets, men and women—some confidently (regulars), some hesitantly (“You’re selling fruit?”)—climb aboard and find what looks very much like a produce aisle in miniature. Along the sides, seats have been replaced with stacked shelves where some 50 types of fruits, vegetables, and fresh herbs are organized inside labeled tubs. In the back there’s a cash register, a hanging scale, and a folding counter on where a stack of recipe cards is perched. Shoppers linger, searching and deciding.

The power to visualize

Julie Davis shops here weekly on her lunch break. Now in her 30s, she grew up in North Lawndale and works in the neighborhood. “It’s always been an issue finding fresh produce,” she says. “A lot of children here, if they go to a corner store there might not be any. If you get used to not seeing it, it kind of becomes a way of life.”

Fresh Moves Co-founder and Board President Steven Casey lives in a food desert himself: the Englewood neighborhood. The critical difference between Casey, who works for the MacArthur Foundation, and many of his neighbors, however, is that his family owns a car, putting many alternatives within reasonable reach. Following release of the troubling food desert report in 2006, community activist Jeff Pinzino reached out to Casey. The two briefly considered trying to tackle the problem with brick-and-mortar grocery stores. But, at that time, the nation was just beginning to feel the effects of a long and painful real estate crisis, and the costs would have been prohibitive. But the pair was aware of the People’s Grocery, a produce market in Oakland, Calif., that operated out of the back of a postal truck. Another epiphany came when they learned that the CTA is required by federal statute to retire its buses after 12 years or 500,000 miles.

But perhaps the most pivotal moment of all, Casey recalls, was the decision to partner with the Chicago chapter of Architecture for Humanity.

Local Architecture for Humanity co-director Katherine Darnstadt, AIA, jokes that when she met with Pinzino and Casey, all they had to go on was “a bad PowerPoint.”

The Chicago chapter agreed to take on the project pro bono and put some of its best architects on the case. The team produced five designs, incorporating everything from rooftop solar panels to a takeout window. The research and drawings they produced transformed a vague idea into a tangible project. Now Casey and Pinzino had a concept they could market to funders. Within six months, they had enough money—about $150,000—to get started. That’s “the power of being able to visualize an idea,” Darnstadt says.

Without that design assistance, Casey doubts that they would have been able to effectively communicate the concept and turn it into a reality. “At some point, telling people ‘I want a bus to go sell people fruits and vegetables’ sounds like the craziest thing you’ve ever heard,” he says. “But not when you have a design.”

The group was able to secure a bus from the CTA for the very reasonable price of $1. And thanks to the simplicity of the chosen design, retrofitting cost just a few thousand dollars.

That’s all organizational history now. May of last year saw the Fresh Moves bus take to the streets for the first time. Since then, Fresh Moves’ healthy wares have reached about 9,000 Chicagoans. Financial backers such as Chase Bank and a handful of others help support the organization, which costs about $275,000 a year to operate. (Last year the bus brought in about $50,000 in sales.) Labor costs are relatively low. The organization employs four people: a bus mechanic/ driver, a director, and two cashiers. Maintenance and gas costs represent a bigger portion of the budget, Casey says. Heading into its second year, Fresh Moves is planning to scale up. In August, the group received two additional buses from the CTA plus a $45,000 grant from the USDA. They plan to expand further into the South Side.

Recognition and replicability

On a balmy day in August, Architecture for Humanity volunteers were hard at work unscrewing seats and removing grab bars in the two additional buses. Meanwhile driver Susha McLeod explained to a worker what adjustments were needed in the existing bus.

Meredith Blake, an architecture graduate student at Chicago’s Archeworks alternative design school, was slinging a wrench as part of her orientation, alongside 10 of her classmates. The young woman was inspired to get into the field after a stint working for the city of Chicago on an assignment that involved mapping local neighborhoods. Working with the community is exactly what Blake wants out of her education and career. “It’s rewarding,” she says. “It offers you, as a student, a lot of insight.”

By midday, the two buses were almost completely emptied, save for the back benches, air conditioning units, and driver’s seat, which will remain in the final design. Across the parking lot, a worker was cutting a new countertop, one with shelves to provide extra storage space for Fresh Moves staff. Eventually shelves made of woven steel will be installed, smaller at the top and deeper and larger at the floor. When customers are shopping, the counter for the register will fold down from the wall.

Fresh Moves is gaining recognition. It was featured in Michelle Obama’s book American Grown, as well as in O, The Oprah Magazine. Through Nov. 25, the Fresh Moves concept will occupy the center of the design world at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale as part of the U.S. pavilion exhibit Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good.” It has also inspired similar programs in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Kansas City. “That’s one of best parts of all of this,” Casey says, “It’s unbelievably replicable.”

Selling themselves

Solving the food access problem of hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans is a daunting task. But efforts like Fresh Moves, as part of a larger community-wide strategy, are making progress. A recent follow-up report to the 2006 “food desert” study found that roughly 40 percent fewer people in Chicago live in food deserts since the initial report.

If there’s a lesson here, Casey says, it’s that if people are given a choice, healthier foods have a way of selling themselves. One of his proudest moments was a scene he witnessed on a street corner when an ice cream trucked pulled up behind the Fresh Moves bus. “There were two people at the ice cream truck,” he says, “and a line at the [Fresh Moves] bus.”

 



The Fresh Moves Mobile Produce Market bus. Image courtesy of Architecture for Humanity.



Interior of Fresh Moves bus. Image courtesy of Architecture for Humanity.



Volunteers strip out old seats and grab bars to install grocery shelves in the next Fresh Moves bus. Image courtesy of Jane Sloss.

   
     

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Back to AIArchitect November 16, 2012

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