Farmer's Market on Wheels: Reducing Hunger and Promoting Community Well-Being

by Amy Best and Jeff Johnson, MA Sociology '10

An old school bus, freshly painted a sprightly green, with shelves of fruits and vegetables extending from its side, is parked outside an apartment building for seniors in southeast Washington, D.C. Elderly men and women speak in easy cadence and intimate tones. A “Good afternoon” is offered here, a “How you doing?” in reply. Ida, a market regular, chimes, “Got any watermelon?” from her perch in her wheelchair. “No, hopefully next week. We have peaches, though.” Plastic bags crinkle open, and potatoes, chard, and garlic are dropped inside. It is a typical day at Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture’s mobile farmer’s market.

Limited access to healthy food in low-income, urban areas is well documented as part of “the new hunger” in the United States. Gone are the days of food shortages captured in the haunting images of Depression-era breadlines thanks to widespread cheap, highly processed, nutrient-poor food.

The new hunger is best understood in terms of blocked access to foods that sustain health and enable long-term well-being. Community-based efforts to bring local and affordable fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins to low- income communities in the form of farmer’s markets have been offered as one strategy to improve healthy food access. But farmer’s markets in these communities have experienced uneven success. The characterization of farmer’s markets as expensive and signaling gentrification, combined with a history of negative consumer experiences for those who are low-income, especially if African American, often deter potential customers.

More recently, mobile farmer’s markets have developed as an alternative, community-based intervention to improve access to healthy food in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. An estimated 40 mobile markets operate in the United States, and early evidence suggests that mobile market patrons consume more fruits and vegetables than their non-market counterparts. Mobile markets differ from conventional farmer’s markets: they are single seller, able to move across various community hotspots, and do not require a substantial time commitment from farmers for direct-customer selling.

The target customers for mobile markets are users of WIC/EBT/SNAP payments (formerly called food stamps) and senior farmer’s market nutrition vouchers. Many mobile markets also provide information about federal food assistance programs and eligibility since one of their goals is to maximize the use of federal assistance to purchase foods that enable health.

We spent summer and fall 2012 observing a Washington, D.C., mobile market program run by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, a Fairfax-based nonprofit. As sociologists, we were asked to evaluate the Arcadia program. We analyzed its financial records and visited the market during its first selling season, spending several hours each week talking with customers and taking notes of what we saw. At the time, the mobile market was run by a small but dedicated staff. Benjamin Bartley and Juju Harris were the bones of the operation and were assisted by three committed interns. Despite the small staff and relative newness, the mobile market program was a success. So, what enabled its success?

At first blush, building demand in an area where access to fresh produce is severely limited would appear to be relatively straightforward: go in, set up shop, sell fresh food. But many obstacles arise in launching such a program. The shortage of grocery stores in lower-income communities often contributes to a sense of ambivalence toward market options. Residents might view outsiders as indifferent to their abandonment by those with serious political and economic muscle. Groups and organizations from outside the community intent on having a positive impact run the risk of being perceived as interlopers. Program activities can be met with suspicion or interpreted as patronizing and disingenuous.

Yet, there are also ways a new program can mitigate these obstacles. Arcadia did a lot of upfront work that paid off later, harnessing community-based networks along with city-level administrative offices and grassroots organizations. It ran an effective community outreach campaign that helped solidify partnerships with food access and community stakeholders.

The result was a matching program in which low-income customers could receive $20 worth of fruits and vegetables for $10, which made their food more affordable. Arcadia also selected market locations carefully. Market stops had a high volume of SNAP, WIC, and senior voucher participants, and it was important that the stops were anchored by trusted community institutions (a senior wellness center, in one instance).

The mobile market’s success also hinged on building social trust, and recognition of the collective and individual dignity of its customers, which too often is denied to people in disadvantaged communities.

Our first inkling that the market’s success rested in daily market interaction came early in the selling season. A customer who appeared to be in her sixties asked Best if she was a “news lady.” Best replied that she was observing to see how the mobile market was doing. The woman replied unequivocally, “Excellent!” Best asked, “What makes it excellent?” She replied, “How they treat you. They’re friendly and nice, and they tell you stuff. They introduce themselves. They help you. They tell you what’s coming next.”

“A+, A+, A+,” she added.

Indeed, on any given day, a visitor to the mobile market would be greeted by a bustling scene marked by respectful and instructive exchanges with staff. Useful information about cost-effective and healthy cooking and eating was exchanged in the context of casual conversation: how to ripen fruit, which heart healthy oils to use, how to learn about eligibility for food assistance programs, what distinguishes grass-fed beef from grain-fed beef. There was a lot of healthy talk peppered in the regular rounds of chit-chat about comings and goings, and family and friends. This, combined with food sampling and cooking demonstrations, created an effective environment of learning with significant opportunity to build awareness about health and food.

Some people have suggested that economically disadvantaged people prefer junk food over fresh food. Our observations find these explanations wanting. Customers often compared the food the mobile market sold and the poor quality of produce in grocery stores in low-income communities. Many expressed genuine concern about health and well-being for themselves and others in the community. In fact, customers often bordered on exuberant about the improved access to the healthy foods the mobile market provided. On one occasion a woman, maybe in her seventies, remarked to Johnson, “I am happy inside.” She explained that she had heard there were “pesticides and penicillin in all our food. In all that food that you get at Safeway and Giant. And we need this, and I’m just so happy.”

The frequent expressions of customer gratitude for goods and services also hinted at a broader context of mar- ketplace discrimination. The consumer market experience for a large number of black Americans, in particular, is marked by a well-documented legacy of hostility, humiliation, and indifference that persists even today with little recourse. Accounts of black customers being refused service, sold inferior products often at inflated prices, being followed by security personnel, and being denied entry to retail settings have been recorded by legal scholars, journal- ists, and social scientists. The accumulative effect of these routine encounters is guarded apprehension and distrust.

Arcadia’s mobile market offered a fundamentally different shopping experience. We often saw mobile market staff helping customers select items, carefully bagging items, and keeping track of total money spent and the remaining balance on food assistance checks and vouchers. Customers were encouraged to “try before you buy” from the range of healthy offerings. Samples were regularly placed on the service table for customers to try.

The rapport-building efforts of market staff enabled customers to ask questions about the food and cooking preparations. One afternoon, Harris told a woman who had just bought a lemon cucumber that she could mix the cucumber with a little vinegar and salt. The woman nodded with an assuring smile and said that sounds good, adding she might also try the zucchini. She then told Best that Bartley has “taught her a lot.” After collecting her items and preparing to go, she hugged Bartley and Harris. And then, quite unexpectedly, hugged Best, too.

Cooking demonstrations were particularly effective in promoting healthy eating habits. They introduced customers to new food, with noted impact on customers’ perception and appreciation of unfamiliar vegetables. One afternoon, Harris sautéed eggplant for several women gathered around the table. One woman asked about the eggplant. After she and Harris chatted for a minute, the woman said, “I’m going to try it.” Another woman remarked on how good it smelled, adding, “I want to try to make it at home.” She asked whether the oil has to be a specific brand. Harris said no, but she does use the olive oil because it is heart healthy. One of the women held up the cup to her nose. “Smells like Chinese food,” she said. She then tried it and remarked that it was good. The other woman had eaten hers and placed the cup in the trash. She thought it was “okay,” but a minute later asked whether she could have another. The two women talked about the sample eggplant and seemed genuinely surprised by how much they liked it.

“Now I know how to make it,” one remarked excitedly and asked whether she could have another. The other woman also asked for a third. “A new taste, I like that.”

While mobile market staff engaged in educational outreach, they also valued the customers’ food knowledge, often asking them how they prepared food at home. Customers shared stories, memories, and their existing knowledge, with noted references to a not-so-distant agricultural past. Much of the food sold at the market honored the distinct foodways of its customer base—culturally rooted staples of Southern soul cooking such as collards, mustard greens, green tomatoes, butter beans, and sweet potatoes.

Quantifying intangibles such as respectful communication or caring customer service is difficult, yet the mutual respect and sharing of helpful information and the encouragement by staff for customers to share food knowledge of their own, taken together, enabled an easy rapport to develop between staff and market customers, helping to ensure customers’ return.

Policy work and practical interventions to increase access to and consumption of healthy foods have not focused enough on these most basic human needs. Gradually, we came to appreciate that shopping at the mobile market was a kind of belonging, a way to claim membership in the larger community. Exclusion from consumer spaces for the underprivileged and the old often means exclusion from the broader lattice of public life.

Johnson still remembers one afternoon just before the market closed. An older black woman approached the bus. She perused the potatoes and apples and then asked Bartley, “What are these?” He responded, “That’s Swiss chard.” She nodded. “I’m trying to eat healthy.” She commented that she had not eaten well in her life and that she had some bad habits from her twenties and thirties. Her phone rang and she answered, talked for a moment.

Then with clear delight in her voice, she said, “Let me go. I’m at my local farmer’s market. I’m buying fresh and buying local!”

We learned a lot about the conditions that need to be set for improving genuine food access and to increase consumption of healthy foods. Watching effective positive change unfold before your eyes is probably one of the highlights of being a sociologist. And Arcadia hit it out of the park.

Since the launch of its market in 2012, Arcadia’s Mobile Market program has grown substantially from 7 market stops to 18. More than 60 percent of its first-time SNAP customers became return customers, and the market has grown by 50 percent each year almost entirely through word of mouth. In 2014, they sold more than 20 tons of local, sustainably grown fruits and vegetables at reduced prices to low-income customers.

Mobile markets alone can’t fix health problems that may result from being financially disadvantaged, nor secure well-being, but they certainly get us a little closer. 

Amy Best is a professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.  Jeff Johnson graduated from George Mason University with an MA in sociology in 2010.  He is a doctoral student in George Mason's sociology program.