Wash. U. grads and SLU student fight food deserts

| Staff Reporter

In 2013, two Washington University graduates, Colin Dowling and Tej Azad, along with Saint Louis University School of Medicine student Jeremy Goss, conceived a way to provide healthy and affordable food to St. Louis residents living in food deserts: a farmer’s market on wheels. The MetroMarket, originally a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to action, will take to the streets this summer in the JeffVanderLou community of St. Louis.

Goss first became aware of the rising issue of food insecurities in this country when he saw the work of photographer Mark Menjivar, who takes pictures of the inside of people’s refrigerators to document the story of variable food access.

“Hearing from Mark was the first time I’d heard the term ‘food deserts’ and when I came to St. Louis, I got to see it for myself,” Goss said. “It helps that I’m a medical student seeing patients, so I can see the side effects, which cover the spectrum from starvation to obesity—because a lot of these food desert neighborhoods have fast food stores and corner liquor stores selling only unhealthy food.”

The MetroMarket will function out of a converted Metro Transit bus, with the seats removed and replaced with custom shelving and refrigeration units to hold fresh food. Amazingly, Metro Transit is so into this idea, the company has offered an additional bus for every year that the MetroMarket founders desire one.

But the market goes beyond just provision of food. MetroMarket has a partnership with Saint Louis University’s Nutrition and Dietetics Department. SLU dietetics interns will provide free, weekly cooking lessons on the curbside. All ingredients for each meal will be bundled and available for purchase from the bus.

“It’s not enough just to provide access to healthy food and to make it affordable, because over the generations, skills have been lost: understanding of proper portions and the constituents of a balanced meal,” Goss said. “For us, it comes down to the old parable of teaching a man to fish versus simply giving him a fish.”

The SLU dieticians will also use their culinary skills to design value-added products from what is already offered on the bus, such as marinara sauce from tomatoes, as well as healthy versions of pre-packaged TV dinners. The microwaveable meals, designed from the recipes that prove most popular from the curbside demonstrations, will help reduce food insecurities year-round, since the fresh produce growing season is only 25 weeks long.

MetroMarket has just received a $75,000 grant from the Incarnate Word Foundation to offset start-up costs, but the primary way the founders plan to keep food prices low is through a corporate arm. While the bus will be operating in food deserts on the weekends, during the week, it will be stationed at corporate campuses that pay a membership fee. The process will be the same: cooking demonstrations with ingredients proportioned for a family of four and bundled for sale, but there will be more valuable items added for a higher price point. Because the bus will only be at any given corporate campus on one day of each week, MetroMarket founders are also developing a website so that member employees can purchase food online for delivery on off days.

Revenues from this corporate initiative will subsidize the cost of selling staple goods in food desert communities. Beyond that, MetroMarket plans to engage in gleaning, otherwise known as the Ugly Food Movement. Because most farmers only harvest the fruits and vegetables that look the best, most bruised (but still perfectly edible) produce goes to waste. MetroMarket plans to get corporate and community volunteers to gather the produce that would otherwise be thrown out by farmers, for use in value-added products and TV dinners sold on the bus.

Because the provision of fresh foods only on the weekends in food desert communities does not solve the issue of food access during the week, MetroMarket will also be partnering with corner liquor and convenience stores in each neighborhood. The stores have previously been reluctant to offer fresh produce because of the high price and short shelf life, but MetroMarket will sell its produce to these stores at low prices, consistent to what’s offered on the bus.

MetroMarket founders have had the opportunity to go into the neighborhoods they will be helping and engage the community, surveying individuals about their particular food insecurity issues and their willingness to shop at MetroMarket. The entire approach for the market has been formatted in response to its customers’ needs. MetroMarket will develop focus groups in each area in order to accommodate the community in the best way possible.