Mobile market to address food deserts makes progress

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by Eric Ginsburg

After several years, plans for a mobile market to address food deserts in Guilford County are gathering momentum and coming to fruition.

When the county health department started trying to seriously address food deserts in Greensboro and High Point almost five years ago, there were no resources for a mobile farmers market that could provide temporary access.

Mark Smith, an epidemiologist with what is now the Guilford County Health & Human Services Department, said all counties have to conduct periodic health assessments and develop action plans to address the findings. During the 2009-10 cycle, the issue of poor access to supermarkets rose to the fore, as did the prevalence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity in the same high-poverty areas.

Before the USDA released its food-desert locator website and standard definition — based on proximity to fresh food and concentration of poverty in a given area — the county identified 24 food deserts in Greensboro and High Point.

And after years of chipping away at the issue, there is now concrete progress towards a mobile farmers market. On Sept. 5, the county acquired the trailer for the market, Smith said.

Another significant development came recently — the ability to accept EBT cards — and now organizers are planning a pilot program beginning next month.

“It isn’t the permanent solution but it is a significant part of addressing the problem because it is mobile,” Smith said. “We’re excited about it because it’s something we’ve been wanting to do for a good while and it’s finally coming together. We’re hoping this will be sort of the beginning of a lot more pieces coming together.”

One of those pieces is a partnership with Vision Tree Community Development Corporation, an organization created by NC A&T University student Matthew King that will operate the EBT program and also handle marketing. King, a Greensboro native, moved back to the city from Durham and launched the organization to tackle food insecurity.

“After I researched how food insecure our community was, it ignited a passion and a vision for me to come back home and try and do my part in improving the situation,” King said. “It’s been a very long tedious road but we feel that we are finally crossing the threshold and actually formalizing some tangible solutions for this problem that we’re facing.”

The Greensboro/High Point area tied New Orleans last year for the second highest rate of food insecurity in the country, Smith said.

King isn’t the only partner in the project making the mobile market possible. A $15,000 grant from the United Way and Bryan Foundation funded the trailer, and the county donated a truck to pull it.

Without a way to immediately put a mobile market into commission several years ago, the county and its collaborators initiated a stationary market in the historic Warnersville neighborhood south of downtown, one of 17 food deserts in Greensboro. The initiative also spurred an urban farm behind Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in the neighborhood, with food going to the temporary, stationary market in 2012 and 2013.

Okra growing in the Warnersville urban farm
Okra growing in the Warnersville urban farm

When the mobile market begins in October, Warnersville will be one of the two pilot locations. Marianne LeGreco, a UNCG professor who has been intimately involved with local efforts to address food insecurity, said that in addition to the second location by the health and human services department in east Greensboro, outreach has already begun to the Old Asheboro neighborhood.

The pilot will set up at the health department and Warnersville Recreation Center on Wednesdays for two hours beginning at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. respectively, she said.

“This is the easiest way to get food to the most people without a permanent structure,” she said.

The market will draw its official name — Mobile Oasis Farmers Market — from City Oasis Project, the moniker of the larger effort to eliminate food deserts.

Plans are underway to expand the mobile market to more food deserts in Greensboro and hopefully some in High Point over the next year, LeGreco said.

“We hope to be able to expand the areas that we’re serving so that we can go into multiple communities in Greensboro and then ultimately we’d like to be able to take this mobile market or establish another one in the High Point area,” Smith said. “We’d like to spin it off so the Department of Health & Human Services isn’t necessarily maintaining it.”

The longer-term goal is to develop capacity in communities struggling with food insecurity through a number of methods, LeGreco said. That includes an effort to bring fresh produce into more convenient stores and establishing more community gardens and stationary markets.

It is already somewhat late in the season, LeGreco and Smith said, so the October and November run of the mobile market will be relatively limited compared to the bigger push in the spring.

Despite the progress, LeGreco said the team working on food insecurity knows there is much to be done and other elements to consider, including helping people learn what to actually do with the food from the market. There are plans to share recipes and utilize the county’s nutritionists, but a more complete plan for empowering people to cook after providing access to food will be necessary, she said.

LeGreco is hopeful about the potential for the mobile market and larger effort to eradicate food deserts for several other reasons, too — a partnership is forming with A&T around community gardens, the city’s parks & recreation department is involved and proponents are crossing their fingers for a $1.5 million grant from the Center for Disease Control to address food insecurity.

Smith is also optimistic that a multi-pronged approach, relentless pursuit of funding and innovative solutions will yield results for desperate residents.

“Ultimately we think the answer will come through economic development, so we really want to look at this broadly,” Smith said. “There’s a real need out there and we have a good opportunity here and I think there’s a lot of organizations and individuals out there that want to address some of these issues.”

King expressed a similar sentiment.

“I want to invite people to support this,” he said. “We need a community response. We’re really looking to bring ownership to this issue in regards to our community.”