August 19, 2015 (Updated August 2016)
Penetrating sunlight combined with thick and heavy bus fumes create an unimaginable heat, even in the shade. Tucked amongst the pigeons and notorious big-city, grime-covered sidewalks sits a small white tent. Like a beacon, lit up by the afternoon sun, the tent spills over with a vast and colorful array of fresh produce. The tent is positioned snugly in between the bus stop and the rest of the station—a prime location for passersby to be drawn in by the sweet promises of summer melons and juicy, ripe tomatoes. A woman stops. Apparently, she is a regular and buys a selection of lettuce, tomatoes, watermelon, grapes and carrots to last her the weekend. Her total is $4.
The Queen City Mobile Market, operated by Friendship Gardens, has been offering an oasis of fresh produce on the bus line since 2013. “Our strategy was to put the Mobile Market on Fourth Street at the transit center because it’s the last stop before many Charlotteans catch the bus home,” says Friendship Gardens Director Thom Duncan. “We want to serve the greatest number of people, and at rush hour the bus station is hopping.”
The bus station is certainly amass with people, each on their own trajectory. Many people walk by carrying white bags crammed with fast food from one of the select options at the station. In fact, aside from the Mobile Market, all of the other options in sight are fast food. There is Subway, Burger King, Plaza Sundries Convenient Store, Bojangles, China Shuttle and even a sign on one of the buses advertising the nearest McDonalds. A prime location for both businesses and people in a hurry, these restaurants offer large amounts of food quickly and cheaply.
Breaking up food deserts, like this, is one of the main motivations for the Mobile Market. When people only have the option of nutrient-sparse food at a price they can afford, then fast food or convenience store offerings are the obvious choice. Despite what one may think, entering this market segment comes with a list of challenges. There are reasons that food deserts have continued to exist.
Allegiance and familiarity to these fast-food chains are part of the problem. People know what they are getting when they go to a familiar place, and often it is food they have developed an affinity for. It’s no secret that a lot of this fast-food tastes good, so it is easy for the nutritional value to take a back seat. Another barrier is convenience and knowledge. Buying food that is already prepared, especially for those with families, saves a lot of time, which can be a necessity. Not only is preparing food more time-consuming, but knowing how to prepare fresh food in varying and appetizing ways can pose a challenge as well.
So how does the Mobile Market enter into this system successfully? How can they shift the values more towards nutrition while also competing on all other fronts? Providing this nutritional food at a price-point that the market can afford is one way. They sell at a loss, relying on grant money and donations, to be able to offer food as low as cents on the dollar. Prices vary slightly based on availability but the mobile market will bargain with shoppers to encourage them to buy the produce over other unhealthy alternatives. The market also worked to gain approval to accept SNAP and EBT payment methods. This is a huge draw for shoppers, many who rely solely on those funds to purchase food. With a conversion rate of 1 SNAP/EBT dollar to 1.5 real dollars, patrons are able to purchase more food for their money by buying at the Mobile Market. People’s heavy reliance on these funds can be seen in buying trends at the Mobile Market.
“It has been the slowest day this month,” said Barry Francois, who manages all of the market locations, as he totals his cash box at $18. “This is the fifth week in July, and people are low on funds … many have come up to me and asked if I could come back tomorrow when they get paid from work or EBT/SNAP. At the YMCA, I will total about $400 on a good day, which makes sense because people there are going to the YMCA to focus on their health. That’s great, but as you can see there are other areas we really need to target and redirect focus.”
Francois, a chef by trade, also does his part to encourage shoppers to choose the market by teaching cooking classes. He teaches with demonstrations at the St. Joseph Catholic Church in Kannapolis showing people how to prepare different meals using only the items that are currently offered at the market.
From its inception, the Mobile Market has been about creating a community and a connection between local farmers and the people in areas that lack the resources and access to fresh, nutritious food. It is a trickle down movement starting with Friendship Gardens and Friendship Trays and inspired by the concepts of Slow Food—an international movement promoting an alternative to fast food. The initiative has grown tremendously since it began in 2009 as it now has about 90 contributing gardens around the Charlotte area. These gardens contribute to 750 trays of food a day with Friendship Trays as well as the majority of the produce for the mobile market. Friendship Garden relies almost exclusively on people as their main resource in this movement. To the community, they aim to give back by offering educational workshops, volunteer and leadership opportunities, community connections and food access to those with limited options
In addition to the uptown Mobile Market, Friendship Gardens operates a weekly market at the Simmons YMCA.
For more information and to find out how you can get involved visit www.friendship-gardens.org
Mobile Market Locations:
CATS Transit Center: 310 E. Trade St. (Thursdays from 3:30pm-6:30pm)
Simmons YMCA: 6824 Democracy Dr. (Tuesday from 9am-1pm from June 14 to October 18)
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