Agri Leader

Mobile ‘market’ caters to fresh food ‘deserts’

Not everyone has easy access to the produce bounty that surrounds us in Florida.

There are communities of elderly people where few may drive or get around easily, and reaching a supermarket—not to mention a farm stand—is a luxury.

There are small, poorer towns where there is no supermarket—just a convenience store with a few overpriced bananas and apples.

If getting fresh food isn’t affordable or easy, then the only available choices may be unhealthy and often processed food. We’ve heard a lot recently about the health risks like obesity and diabetes associated with poor food choices. “Most people hover around their work-to-home commute and if a store or farmer’s stand is not on their route, they won’t go out of their way,” said St. Petersburg-based registered dietitian/nutritionist Sarah B. Krieger, who is a spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Areas with little access to nutritious food—due to a lack of supermarkets or no easy way to get to the markets—are called food deserts.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2009 that 2.2 percent of U.S. households live more than a mile from a supermarket and don’t have access to a car. Another 3.2 percent are a half mile to one mile from a supermarket and with no vehicle to get there.

This is where Farm to Family comes in. Based in the tiny northeastern Florida town of Hastings in St. Johns County (home to historical St. Augustine), Farm to Family operates a mobile family market with about 20 stops a week, said executive director Malea Guiriba.

The organization’s founders and local farms wanted to find a way to use all of their produce without actually giving it away. “Going into food deserts was a perfect idea,” said Guiriba.

Because many of the areas that Farm to Family visits are lower income, it was only natural the organization would accept SNAP, or food assistance, benefits.

Farm to Family is operated by the nonprofit group, Pie in the Sky, along with the University of Florida IFAS extension office, local farms, the Department of Health and Human Services, and support from area businesses.

Farm to Family’s mobile truck makes regularly scheduled stops at schools, parks, libraries, and other areas where finding fresh food may be a challenge. The produce sold via the mobile market comes from small, local farmers who are also conscious of making ends meet.

Farm to Family’s website lists its scheduled stops as well as the weekly produce offerings, which this month include avocados, watermelons, okra, cucumbers and peaches. The truck will also stock non-local items that are a good value, such as bananas. Farm to Family also posts recipes on its website for things like carrot cake oatmeal, easy pickles and roasted veggie tacos.

When residents come to the mobile market, they find recipe cards that feature the items for sale in a given week. Farm to Family also has future plans for a nutritionist who can show how to make simple, healthy recipes that will stretch one’s food dollars and for a doctor’s office that can do diabetes checks with those who need them. The organization may one day participate in a study showing how access to fresh produce through the mobile market can improve community members’ health.

“When you buy a tomato from us, you’re purchasing with a purpose,” said Guiriba.

In St. Johns County, there are seven census tracts that are considered food deserts. The mobile truck already delivers to those areas and others three days a week, but there’s enough demand to expand it to a five days a week, said Guiriba.

Farm to Family even plans to eventually carry Datil peppers, a particularly hot pepper grown almost exclusively in St. Augustine (avid readers, you learned about Datil peppers in my column a few weeks ago).

The organization’s success could serve as a model way to reach food deserts and help improve the health of many, said Guiriba. “We’ve grown a lot, and we can see people wanting to replicate the idea,” she said.