by Jeannie Howard
Farmers Markets have long been a resource for fresh, high quality foods at reasonable prices; however, even with the abundance of farmers markets throughout the Bay Area, some people do not have convenient access to those high quality local foods let alone at reasonable prices. Using a box truck turned mobile market, Fresh Approach has been working to change this one community—one route—at a time with their Mobile Farmer’s Market.
Fresh Approach’s aim is to increase access to healthy foods, especially to low income communities, according to Laura deTar, Program Director. The Mobile Farmer’s Market has proven to be a powerful tool to expand their reach. “We target communities where folks don’t have easy access to affordable high quality foods,” she said. “We know that the food access points in those communities are not what the community wants and so we are able to fill this hole.”
Packed to capacity, the Mobile Farmer’s Market brings fresh produce to communities along several routes throughout Contra Costa, Alameda, and San Mateo counties. In addition to making these foods more physically accessible, Fresh Approach has also made the prices more accessible to a larger group of community members. Through their Matching Program, Fresh Approach offers a fifty percent discount to individuals that receive CalFresh, WIC, SSI, SSDI, or Medi-Cal benefits. “So, if a customer spends ten dollars, they get another ten dollars for free,” explained deTar. “With the discount we have expanded and increased the number of folks that are shopping our trucks and benefiting from high quality, fresh produce.” Close to 65 percent of customers utilize the Matching Program and Fresh Approach hopes to continue to increase that percentage.
Serving more than twenty thousand people annually, both directly through the individual shoppers and indirectly from those that eat the foods purchased at the trucks, The Mobile Farmer’s Market is so much more than simply a food truck. “A big part of what we are trying to do with the trucks is to encourage people to engage in their local food system,” said deTar. Along with promoting the locations where customers can find local foods, Fresh Approach also offers Veggie Rx classes. “A lot of folks are lacking access and also lacking the confidence to work with fresh produce so, we offer free community-based nutrition classes that give folks a chance to come together,” described deTar.
During the hour-long Veggie Rx classes, participants learn about why fresh produce is important, taste different foods, and learn how to create healthy meals for their families. “We also provide fruit and vegetable vouchers for folks that attend to use at the mobile or traditional markets to start shopping for more fresh produce and to hopefully try something that may be new for their family without spending their minimal food dollars,” she said In addition to the Veggie Rx classes, Fresh Approach uses customer surveys as a way to learn more about the needs and desires of their customers. “Through our surveys we can learn about not just the individual shopper but their whole household,” said deTar. From the surveys, Fresh Approach has learned that more than forty percent of their customers and their families have diet-related diseases, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, and that nearly twenty percent struggle with food insecurity. Knowing this data helps the organization refine their programs to better meet the needs of the communities they serve.
Since the start of the Mobile Farmer’s Market in 2013, the biggest challenge remains the same—meeting demand versus the organization’s capacity. “We stuff the trucks with as much produce that could possibly fit on each truck,” deTar said. “But so many people are coming to the trucks that by the end of the day, on a few of the stops, there is very little left.” This is not the optimal experience Fresh Approach wants for all customers, deTar went on to say, so the organization’s future plans are set on expanding the reach of traditional and mobile markets as well as increasing the number of people participating in the matching program.
“There is potential to add a third truck in the next few years,” she said. “But right now we are really trying to deepen the services provided in the communities where we are already servicing to further increase the impacts for those residences.”
The impact of Fresh Approach’s services is most evident on an individual level, according to deTar. “We hear the stories from our participants about how having high-quality produce available in their community has changed their lives, how it has helped them control their diet-related diseases or given them a reliable way to access health food, which was not something that they could find in their community before.”
One of the greatest rewards for deTar and the team at Fresh Approach is to hear these individual-level stories and to know their customers are sharing their positive experience with their neighbors. “Seeing the movement building where more and more folks are coming to shop because people that participate in our program encourage others to come is the most rewarding,” exclaimed deTar.