For five years, grocery shopping was a challenge for Kristen Bobence.
Kristen’s apartment isn’t within walking distance of grocery stores, and she can’t afford a car. So Kristen had to pay a friend to drive her to the store. But that all changed this summer when the Twin Cities Mobile Market added a stop in front of Kristen’s apartment building.
The Twin Cities Mobile Market is a grocery store on a bus. It roves around the metro area on a set schedule, bringing over 200 food items to neighborhoods and housing units, like Kristen’s, where people may find it difficult to access or afford fresh, healthy food.
About 13% of adults in Hennepin County experience food insecurity, or worried that they’d run out of food before they had money to buy more. Rates of food insecurity vary considerably by geography, race, and income in Hennepin County.SHAPE 2018 (hennepin.us/shape)
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Fresh, healthy food is important for one’s health, but research shows that many people across America have difficulty accessing and affording it.
In Minnesota, the ability to access and afford quality food often falls along racial/ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Not only are people of color and low-income individuals in Minnesota more likely to face social and structural challenges – like poor transportation access or living in a neighborhood without grocery stores – they’re also disproportionately at risk for diet-related health conditions like obesity. These disparities can be traced to historic and structural racism in housing and employment, and the lack of investments and infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods where a majority of residents are people of color.
It was data like this, and experience growing up in a food desert in rural Iowa, that prompted Lead Porter, an employee at the Amherst Wilder Foundation, to conceive of the Twin Cities Mobile Market in 2014.
Before going forward with her idea, though, Porter solicited feedback from hundreds of metro area residents. She wanted to know whether a mobile market was something they’d use, and, if so, when and where it should operate, and what foods it should carry.
“Our model was driven by community members,” Porter says. “And it still is.”
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With backing from the community, the first bus begin operating in 2014. Today the Mobile Market has two buses and 26 stops scattered across St. Paul, North Minneapolis, and the Cedar Riverside neighborhood. Recently, the market also added a stop in St. Louis Park. The initiative is subsidized by grants and overseen by the Amherst Wilder Foundation.
Although the Mobile Market targets people who have difficulties accessing or affording fresh, healthy food, Porter stresses that the market is open to everyone.
“Our business model is such that, the more people who buy, the more the program grows,” she says. “You’re supporting our work when you shop at the Mobile Market.”
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In the five years since the market launched, Porter and her team have learned surprising things about the community. For instance, they initially placed stops at schools, only to find that people are most likely to shop where they live. So today, most of the stops are in front of low-income housing facilities.
Another surprising find? The Mobile Market impacts social isolation. “We’ve found ourselves introducing neighbors to neighbors,” says Porter. “The surveyed majority feel more connected to their neighborhood due to the Mobile Market, and this can help people, especially older adults, people who live alone, and people experiencing mental illness.”
Porter and her team have also been surprised to see the random acts of kindness that have arose. “It’s very common to see people put an item back because they can’t afford it,” she says. “And someone behind them steps in and helps them buy it. It’s beautiful. People say they feel safe and welcome on the bus.”
And, of course, another learning – this one not so surprising – is the way the Mobile Market improves individuals’ health. Porter recalls one woman who, prior to using the market, lived almost entirely off of vending machine food. She didn’t have a car and she couldn’t drive. She also had mobility issues, and her nearest grocery store was an upscale establishment she couldn’t afford. Over the course of a year, she lost 70 pounds just by changing the way she sourced her food.
The Amherst Wilder Foundation is currently collaborating with two organizations to quantify these health improvements.
Through an initiative with Fairview Health Services, patients screened for food insecurity and a diet-related health condition at Fairview can receive a “prescription” for fruits and veggies at the Mobile Market. Fairview is currently tracking their health outcomes.
And beginning this fall, the Mobile Market embarked on another initiative with support from the Cargill Foundation. For the next two years, they’ll track the health outcomes of Mobile Market shoppers in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood who receive fruit and vegetable “prescriptions.”
“While we know the Mobile Market works, we need data to prove it to others,” Porter says. “Our goal [with these initiatives] is to show the correlation between shopping at the Mobile Market and increased health and decreased food insecurity so we can then make the case to health insurers that it’s in everyone’s best interest to support this work.”
Since the Twin Cities Mobile Market added a stop in front of Kristen Bobence’s apartment she’s shopped there weekly.
“There are lots of choices,” says Kristen. “They switch [their offerings] a little each week.”
Kristen says she appreciates the market’s convenience, how nice the staff are, and the ability to use her EBT card. (In addition to EBT cards, the market accepts cash, check, and credit cards.)
Most recently, she made tacos with food she bought on the bus.
“For me, food is something we all share,” says Leah Porter. We all need to eat. The fact that we have such stark health disparities in the Twin Cities is representative of systems that aren’t working. But, to me, this is a solvable issue. If people are having difficulty accessing and affording health food, let’s bring the store to them.”
Written by: Lori Imsdahl