Some Edmonton residents can’t get to the grocery store. So instead, the grocery store is coming to them.
I’m not talking about shop and click. These are honest-to-goodness, pick your apples off the cart shops carrying produce at much less than supermarket prices. It’s a mobile grocery store, being run as a social enterprise to deliver fresh fruit and vegetables into the heart of Edmonton’s food deserts.
It’s a concept that’s already taken off in Calgary.
Fresh Routes Calgary started up one year ago. It’s now trucking vegetables to 60 different locations, partnering with H&W Produce, Prairie Mill Bread and the Italian Centre to offer day-old bread and low-cost healthy food to anyone.
They set up near seniors homes, affordable housing complexes and near any low-income neighbourhood without a grocery store within walking distance. They’ve seen huge demand, says co-founder Lourdes Juan. There’s a waiting list of communities hoping to sign up. They work with local community ambassadors to promote the market and add a social component to the weekly gathering.
Here in Edmonton, local organizers worked with the City of Edmonton to select an initial five or six locations and hope to launch in September. They’re now fundraising for the $60,000 refrigerated truck.
I find this such an intriguing concept. It’s tackling three separate issues: how traditional city planning limits access to healthy food, the high cost of food for low-income families, and the challenge of social isolation.
When it comes to city planning, Edmonton has many of the same challenges as Calgary. For decades, developers thought building strong neighbourhoods meant separating uses. They put all of the commercial, grocery and retail off in a power centre along a major arterial road rather than embedding services where people live.
That works fine as long as you can drive. Many people can’t.
When University of Alberta researchers studied the issue in 2005, they found eight neighbourhoods without a grocery store within one kilometre. Those are big food deserts. Smaller ones exist because many people can’t walk one kilometre for food, and in some parts of the city, grocery stores have left legal caveats on land after they close, ensuring no one can ever open a grocery there again.
“The failures of the past are really catching up to us,” says Juan, whose background is in urban planning. Juan hopes these mobile markets will help usher in a new way to plan. Without access to grocery stores, many people rely on canned goods from dollar stores and convenience stores.
The mobile market is also a new way to address poverty. It’s not a charity. This isn’t about handing out food to the poor, although that’s likely still necessary in emergencies. This is more of a hand up, with choice and dignity. It’s also not reliant on unpredictable grants or donations for long-term operations. It’s a social enterprise, a business focused on delivering a social good that re-invests profits in growth.
Because it’s based on wholesale prices, uses some volunteer efforts and has minimal overhead, the food can be 30 to 60 per cent less expensive than market price. The average bill at the Calgary truck is just under $10, which provides fruit and vegetables for one to two people for a week.
There’s no income test required to shop. In fact, organizers encourage everyone who wants to support better access to food to come out. The increased volume of sales gives them even better access to wholesale suppliers, says Morgan Allen, Edmonton-based organizer with University of Alberta’s Community-University Partnership. “We want everyone to feel like they can come out.”
That gets to the third goal — reducing social isolation. Because these are weekly markets, held for just a few hours at a time in each location, organizers hope customers will start to get to know each other. They’re also connecting with partners on-site to see what programming is possible.
They’d be happy to work with community kitchens and, in Calgary, some community leagues and neighbourhood groups set up tables to share news of the programs they offer. One site has a nutritionist. Inviting a busker and setting out tables can help create a farmers market or festival atmosphere.
It’s clear many of the details are still being worked out. But it looks like a neat opportunity, a cornerstone that could develop into something really special.
We needed a new approach to food deserts, something more affordable than the trendy goodies beloved at farmers markets. We need the full range of price points and options, and the fact that these markets will be open to everyone is refreshing. Simply by coming out and spending a few dollars, Edmonton residents can support community and healthy food options for their neighbours.