Food Trucks Can Create Oases in Food Deserts

Food desert theory.  Food deserts in cities can be defined as urban areas where it is difficult to buy high quality fresh foods at an affordable price.  This lack of access to healthy food causes problems for people living within these food deserts.  Instead of eating healthily people living in food deserts buy the “junk food” that is available. This, in turn, causes a variety of predictable health problems such as heart disease, malnutrition and diabetes.

Food desert solutions. Over the years, many well meaning people have proposed a series of solutions designed to solve the food desert problem. One example, described on Bacon’s Rebellion, involves the sale of collard greens in the small grocery and convenience stores in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond. Another involves not only selling healthy foods in Richmond but growing those vegetables in Richmond too. There have even been efforts by local health care organizations to provide “the Class-A-Roll” … a truck with a teaching kitchen inside to provide healthy food cooking lessons. Given that Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA, was conducting a town hall yesterday in Richmond to address food insecurity, one can only assume that these well intended ideas didn’t work. Of course they didn’t work. They miss the real point.

Time in not on your side. Let’s start with collard greens. As a self-proclaimed master collard greens chef I can say that it takes a long time to properly cook collard greens. They have to be purchased, brought home, stripped of the stems, thoroughly washed/rinsed (sometimes multiple times), cut into strips, combined with garlic onions and meat, then slowly cooked until tender. Imagine coming home from a long day’s work, probably from a job quite far from home, using relatively slow public transportation and undertaking an hour or more’s work preparing and cooking collard greens. Not likely. As for growing food in small scale city plots … great if gardening is a hobby but not so great if you are working two jobs.

Charity. A column posted in today’s Bacon’s Rebellion chides the “food justice movement.” The article describes a new grocery store being opened in a Richmond food desert by a wealthy couple — Steve and Kathie Markel — as well as Warner’s idea of funding things like farmers’ markets … as long as they are charitable entities. This generated some complaints by local residents …

Omar Kadaffi Guevera, with the Richmond Food Justice Alliance, urged Warner to make grants and funding available to smaller groups that are doing work in the community — presumably, like his. “I’m a little bothered by the farmer’s market piece having to be a 501(c)3 [nonprofit] which doesn’t really address the social enterprise aspects and the economic inequities that drive low food access,” he said.

Good for Mr. Guevera. First, these solutions don’t solve the problem of people operating in a “free time” desert as well as a “food desert.” Second, both smack of charity. Mr. Guevera wants more entrepreneurial solutions with local ownership. This seems like sound thinking.

Enter the food trucks. In recent years food trucks have become very popular. They are frequently seen on city streets and even have their own television series on the Food Network. I’ve eaten from many food trucks and the quality of the meal has generally been excellent. A food truck costs between $28,000 and $114,000 to get started. Shouldn’t locally owned food trucks be considered as part of the solution to the food desert problem in Richmond (and elsewhere)?

A germ of an idea. In return for some seed money, zero interest loans and help navigating Virginia’s food truck regulations local entrepreneurs would be required to serve relatively healthy food and operate their food trucks within food deserts a majority of the time (including peak eating hours). The local entrepreneur would also have to personally work in the food truck. This would help solve the time problem and the economic empowerment problem while providing great opportunities for small business formation.

— Don Rippert