With grocery bus, West Siders jump on health bandwagon

With grocery bus, West Siders jump on health bandwagon
A customer checks out the produce offerings at Fresh Moves Mobile Market. WBEZ/Robin Amer
With grocery bus, West Siders jump on health bandwagon
A customer checks out the produce offerings at Fresh Moves Mobile Market. WBEZ/Robin Amer

With grocery bus, West Siders jump on health bandwagon

There’s a novel solution bringing relief to food deserts on Chicago’s West Side.

Sparing the expense of building a bricks and mortar grocery, a group has transformed a decommissioned CTA bus into a mobile, one-aisle produce mart. Fresh Moves Mobile Market carries a mix of conventional and organic fruits and vegetables to parts of Chicago that lack grocery stores and other viable options for healthy eating.

We caught up with the bus at the first of its Wednesday stops, in front of the Lawndale Christian Health Center on West Ogden Avenue.

Right now, Fresh Moves is in service two days a week, rotating between locations in North Lawndale and Austin. The climate-controlled bus will allow them to operate year-round, and Sheelah Muhammad, Fresh Move’s board secretary, says they hope to expand to six days a week. “We want to be like the ice cream truck,” Muhammad says. “You hear the bell and everyone comes running.”

The project’s senior manager, Dara Cooper, 33, says Fresh Moves uses standards set by the Environmental Work Group to determine which fruits and vegetables they should carry as organic. “All of the fruits and vegetables that are heavily sprayed with pesticides - kale, collards, cherries, nectarines - we try to buy organic,” Cooper says. “Oranges, bananas, those kinds of things we can buy conventional.”

Fresh Moves hopes to address a critical problem facing neighborhoods across Chicago.

A 2006 study found that African-Americans in Chicago had the fewest options when it came to grocery shopping, and that black neighborhoods like North Lawndale were among the most cut off from fresh produce. Mari Gallagher, the study’s author, found that in a typical African-American block, “the nearest grocery store is roughly twice as distant as the nearest fast food restaurant.” The impact, Gallagher writes, is severe: “Communities that have no or distant grocery stores…will likely have increased premature death and chronic health conditions.”

Fresh Moves must keep prices competitive if they want to be a viable option for people in the low-income neighborhoods that most need their help. Theodore Thompson, 36, had just finished his morning run when he stepped onto the bus looking for something “nice and juicy” to help him rehydrate. Thompson lives in Lawndale and runs an afterschool program at nearby Lawndale Community Church. He says he found the prices on the bus to be very reasonable, “They actually beat the prices in some of the stores that I shop in,” he says, citing Sam’s Club, Food For Less and Jewel as places where he would normally go. “I’m looking at the mangoes. In the store you might have to pay $1.50 [per mango]. Here, it’s one dollar for one mango!

Thompson left with mangoes, plums, and avocados.

A Fresh Moves customer weighs her options, and her selection.

Sales associate Jessica White weighs oranges at the register. In addition to cash and debit cards, Fresh Moves was recently approved to accept the Illinois LINK card, which allows food stamp recipients to pay for purchases electronically.

Sales associate Feguier Epps, 33, helps customer Caritina Almanza, 24, with her purchase. Almanza, who lives on the South Side in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood, is one of several health center employees who shop on the bus. She is also a social worker who works with mothers and infants who has been recommending the bus to her clients. “I actually told one of my clients about it yesterday; She got excited,” Almanza says. “Having little ones, she’s trying to teach her baby to eat well.”

Almanza left with pineapple, broccoli, sweet potatoes and other goodies.

Marcella Fermoso, 48, lives in Oak Park, IL and works at the Lawndale Christian Health Center in the case management department. She prefers to buy organic, but finds stores like Whole Foods too expensive. “I’m coming back for sure,” she says.

You can catch the bus Wednesdays and Thursdays for now. Click here for the full schedule.