Meet the mobile grocery store that’s out to revolutionize urban eating

by Leif Pettersen on June 20, 2014

The Nickel Tour: Meet the woman who wants to put an end to food deserts – and how she’s making that happen with an old bus, an IndieGogo campaign, and a lot of community support.

Leah Driscoll and her husband Mike are the co-founders of Twin Cities Mobile Market (TCMM): literally a grocery store on wheels that will bring fresh produce, meat, dairy and more to urban food deserts, so called because of the lack of healthy food within a reasonable distance.

The project, which began in January 2013, is coming closer to its hopeful launch in August. The extensive retrofitting of an old Metro Transit bus to house the TCMM, is still in progress. It’s a tricky and much delayed procedure that Leah cheerfully likens to the copious snags faced during an epic home improvement project. Though other cities such as Portland, Chicago, and Boston have similar mobile market concepts, TCMM will be the first to offer fresh meat and dairy, meaning generators and refrigeration compounding the already complex retrofit. Once that’s completed, all that remains is filling the TCMM with food using funds from their Indiegogo fundraising campaign that runs through June 27, 2014.

Speaking to Leah, it’s clear this project hits close to home for her and Mike, who both grew up experiencing periods of food insecurity. With a passion for social justice and the tireless drive required for such labor, Leah has worked in non-profit roles her entire career. She was a Program Developer with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation for four years before the TCMM was conceived. Before that she worked as a Grants Coordinator with Ecumen, which included work on “The Awakenings Project,” a campaign to eliminate the use of “chemical restraints” in nursing homes.

Leah’s interest in food deserts began during grad school at Hamlin. She studied the phenomenon in low-income communities and the resulting health inequities including high rates of obesity, diabetes and shorter life spans. Stirred by these figures, she eventually wrote her thesis on the subject – which included interviewing coordinators of other mobile markets around the country – and found her inspiration for a Twin Cities Mobile Market.

Though the TCMM was started as a side project, unrelated to her position at The Wilder Foundation, a partnership was eventually forged. Twin Cities Mobile Market now operates under the Wilder Foundation umbrella with Leah and Mike as the Co-Founders running the show.

In addition to providing access to fresh food, the TCMM will sell it’s groceries at below market prices, marked up only enough to cover operating costs. The TCMM plans to start operating in St. Paul, including the Dayton’s Bluff area where only about a fifth of residents currently buy groceries in the neighborhood.

You can contribute to making TCMM a reality by donating to their Indiegogo campaign. But don’t wait: though the campaign has reached its original goal, the contributing window closes June 27th. Follow the progress and launch of the Twin Cities Mobile Market on its Twitter feed and Facebook page.

Q&A with Leah Driscoll

Why did you choose a bus to host Mobile Market rather than, say, a giant converted moving van?

We explored several options for our vehicle, and we decided on a bus because it allows people to get inside and out of the elements, which is really important during our Minnesota winters. We’ll operate year-round because healthy food access is a year-round need, and a trailer or refrigerated truck just wasn’t a feasible option for effectively serving customers. Also, while buying healthy food on a bus may be a unique experience, boarding a bus isn’t unfamiliar for many people, and we wanted a vehicle that would be friendly and welcoming.

How did the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation come to be involved?

When my husband Mike and I started Twin Cities Mobile Market in early 2013, we didn’t necessarily want to create another nonprofit organization. We began shopping it around to find a nonprofit home, and found a great home at the Wilder Foundation. One of the Wilder Foundation’s priorities is to improve community health and well-being in low income neighborhoods.

National research suggests that a person’s health is strongly influenced by social determinants including income, education, and neighborhood conditions. One such neighborhood condition is access to affordable, healthy food. So, there was a great fit between our values and the Wilder Foundation’s value of innovating to improve community health.

Describe what a typical day will be for Mobile Market.

We’re still putting together the giant puzzle that will be our route and schedule. We’ve being doing a lot of community engagement at our potential stop sites to learn from residents what days and times work best for them, and we’re now compiling all of this data to create our schedule. Ideally, we’ll operate Tuesday through Saturday, with at least three stops per day ranging from one to three hours per stop, depending on the traffic at each location. We plan to operate at each stop at the same time each week so residents can plan their weekly shopping around the market.

How do you plan to promote Mobile Market once it’s making its rounds so the neighborhood knows you’re there?

We’re working closely with our host sites to promote the Mobile Market to their customers and stakeholders using their existing communication channels. We’ll also do some grassroots methods, like flyering our targeted neighborhoods. Blue sky dreaming, what are your long term goals for Mobile Market? We’d love to see a fleet of Mobile Market serving the Twin Cities, and we’d love the Mobile Market to become a gathering place where neighbors can come together and discuss – and even – start developing – what they need to make their neighborhoods healthy. We hope the Mobile Market will become a catalyst for an even bigger food access movement across Twin Cities’ neighborhoods.

What will it take to see suitable brick-and-mortar grocery stores return to food desert neighborhoods?

Some say there isn’t enough demand for healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods and that’s why there aren’t brick-and-mortar grocery stores. However, through our community outreach, we’ve found that community members really want affordable, healthy foods, especially produce and meat. With the Mobile Market, we can prove there’s demand in neighborhoods for healthy, affordable food and hopefully attract brick-and-mortar stores.

Soon, this bus will transform into a grocery store on wheels
Citizens Taking Action
for transit dependent riders
We explored several options for our vehicle, and we decided on a bus because it allows people to get inside and out of the elements ... Also, while buying healthy food on a bus may be a unique experience, boarding a bus isn’t unfamiliar for many people, and we wanted a vehicle that would be friendly and welcoming.

"extensive retrofitting of an old Metro Transit bus"