With so much fresh produce for sale this time of year, it may be hard to imagine there are people in New England who have trouble getting access to it. But that’s the case for some of the elderly, disabled and poor, who don’t own cars and who live in neighborhoods with few or no grocery stores.
In Springfield, a farmers market on wheels is trying to address the problem.
For the third time today Michael Skillicorn and his co-worker are setting up a tent for Springfield’s Go Fresh Mobile Market.
As they haul vegetables out of a UHaul truck, customers are already lining up. A few are in wheelchairs. Many are elderly, including Nadishrnya Ulyanavah who later buys turnips, garlic and…
“Cilantro! We have two scallions,” said Skillicorn as he tallied up the purchase. “So that will be $11.00 total. So with food stamps it is now $5.50.”
Food stamps cut prices in half. Skillicorn, who runs the market, says it’s not designed to make a profit. He marks up the produce only 20 percent.
“If we sell all the vegetables that we buy we’ll make a little bit of money,” said Skillicorn, “but it wont cover the cost of even paying the employees.”
This mobile market, in its fifth season, sells food at 10 stops in four days. At least seven other mobile markets are running in New England. Skillicorn says getting local produce at a good price to these neighborhoods is the right thing to do.
“The folks we are serving know what they’re looking for,” said Skillicorn. “They know what healthy food is and they just can’t get to it!”
There may be convenience stores and fast food restaurants, but fresh produce is a trek. 71-year-old Nelson Pinett is buying cabbage, cucumbers and raspberries. It’s about a mile uphill from his apartment to the nearest grocery.
“Pretty hard,” said Pinett. “The closest one is “Save A Lot” up here. I got to take the bus up and down, up and down.”
The group Partners for a Healthier Community has raised $85,000 for the project. The funders include Health New England and Tufts Health Plan Foundation. Market Operations Manager Synthia Scott-Mitchell says improving health conditions like diabetes and heart disease are at the heart of the market.
“There are a huge number of folks suffering from chronic disease that are directly food-related,” said Scott-Mitchell. “So it’s important that folks have access to fresh local produce, And you notice I keep saying ‘local’, because we believe in driving the local economy.”
It doesn’t get much more local than this. The food is grown in Springfield, West Springfield and Hadley. But the concept of ‘local’ takes getting used to. The market has raspberries today, but many people, including 64-year-old Willie Green, wanted more fruit.
“When will you becoming with peaches, the watermelons?” asked Green.
“We’ll have peaches, I would say, optimistically in three weeks,” said Skillicorn.
That’s because it’s not a supermarket with produce from California and Mexico. Stella Vaughn, mother of three, bought lettuce, cucumbers, kale and collard greens. She shares her recipe.
“Chop it up with some onions,” explained Vaughn. “Put some like chicken bouillon in it, some salt and pepper. Usually it’ll take an hour at the most to simmer. Might throw a piece of ham in there to give it some more flavor.”
Vaughn walked about two miles with her eight-month-old son because the prices are good and they take WIC, Women, Infants and Children, checks.
“To me that’s huge,” said Vaughn. “I’m really grateful for that.”
Lydia Zepeda, an economist from the University of Wisconsin in Madison did a study of the impact of mobile markets for the USDA. She found that the people who shopped at mobile markets “ate 3 1/2 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. And the people who didn’t shop at the mobile markets ate just less than 2 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.”
Zepeda says it’s not clear whether the markets are the reason for the increase… or whether the people who go to these markets already eat more produce. Zepeda also noticed something else: Two of the four markets she studied went out of business.
“ I don’t know that it’s the best business model,” said Zepeda. “Unless you’ve got a really strong grant-base and fundraising base for your organization, that you can use to subsidize the trucks and the labor involved, it is going to be probably not a long term proposition.”
Springfield’s market does have a strong fundraising base for now. Michael Skillicorn wants to make it as sustainable as possible.
“By kind of really careful accounting of what we’re selling and what we’re buying,” said Skillicorn. “And kind of trying to make our systems a lot more being efficient and keep our costs down we can slowly chip away at that amount of grant funding that we need.”
“Here’s your receipt. Well see you next week. Dosvedanya.”
“Dosvedanya. God bless you.”
“God bless you, too.”
Soon the market will have a better chance at increased efficiency. The Pioneer Valley Transit Association is donating a bus, which will be retrofitted with a walk-in cooler and a freezer. The hope is also to sell milk and eggs —and set up shop in more locations.
MORE MOBILE MARKETS IN NEW ENGLAND
– CitySeed (New Haven, CT)
– FRESH New London (New London, CT)
– Fresh Truck (Boston, MA)
– Hartford Mobile Market (Hartford, CT)
– Mill City Grows (Lowell, MA)
– “Veggie Mobile” run by the Regional Environmental Council (Worcester, MA)
– Somerville Mobile Farmer’s Market (Somerville, MA)
– Cultivating Community / St. Mary’s collaboration starting in the fall (Lewiston-Auburn, ME area)