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

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22 responses to “Food Trucks Can Create Oases in Food Deserts

  1. Instead of costly bricks and mortar vendors, why not mobile ones? They can take healthy food where the people are instead of in a fixed location. The capital expense for this kind of enterprise, and why can’t it be a private sector enterprise, is lower than setting up a store. Serving a need in a successful manner would attract others, create competition, and maybe solve the problem without the government deciding who can sell what where.

    • Only issue with private enterprise (IMO) is that it wouldn’t take me long to drive out of the food desert and go park in front of Jim Bacon’s house in some ritzy neighborhood instead. You want a zero interest loan? Gotta serve healthy, inexpensive and within the defined food desert.

  2. I totally agree about the potential for food trucks. As I recall, Warner’s proposal would apply to food trucks. But I do have one big question. While food trucks would serve food at lower prices than restaurants, would the menu be competitive with cook-at-home? Could poor, inner-city residents afford to patronize the food trucks, or are they more a Yuppie thing?

    • Nothing is cheaper than prepare at home meals. But then you have to deal with time shortages and tired people. I believe that the food trucks could certainly compete with the fast food outlets that seem to do just fine in the food deserts.

  3. Hey guys, they ALREADY do this – they’re called Farmer’s Markets:

    We have them once a week in season AND they DO take EBT cards!

    And our Food Bank has a MOBILE PANTRY:

    If you guys don’t have these things – you need to get on the ball!

    • Those trucks supply raw food, not cooked food. Could be a great idea but still leaves the issue of not having enough time to cook. Also, corporate (Kraft Foods) rather than local entrepreneurial.

      • canned and boxed, produce and bread some stuff is microwaveable.

        so you wanted cooked food and I’m with Bacon on that. The fast food restaurants would not like it. Beyond that – a truck that prepares food is a whole different animal in terms of equipment, propane, sanitation and labor… If it were cost-effective – why aren’t the fast food companies doing it?

        I think a lot of this is already in place. People do not seriously live in food deserts – that they are stranded in – with no way to get food.

        We can get the food to them via existing Mobile Food Pantries. We have competing narratives here.. some are saying they need to eat good old home-cooked food and others are saying we need to bring prepared food to them… LORDY.

  4. Comments so far have been about the supply — nothing about the demand. If this is such a good idea, why don’t you rich guys get a truck and try it.

    • I agree. Nothing changes without a shift in demand. That requires a change in inner-city culture (along with changes to American culture as a whole). Bit it’s a chicken-or-egg problem. Nobody’s tastes are going to change if healthy food is unaffordable.

      • Demand? Where do you think the use of collard greens as food comes from? Norwegian immigrants? About half to three quarters of soul food is very nutritious. Just pass on the macaroni and cheese and use the North Carolina style vinegar based BBQ sauce. Do I have to bring you a take out order of chitlins, Bacon?

    • There’s only so much time in the day. I’ll save my time for being the guinea pig for marijuana reform in Virginia. Somebody else will have to perform the food truck experiments. Lol.

      • You tried guy! But hey – if you took your marijuana idea and put in on a mobile food truck , we’d be solving problems left and right!

        Just imagine people being happy as they can be – eating raw squash and such. 😉

  5. Waymint.

    For those of you who wouldn’t know a collard green you have to pick them and yes I still pick collards, kale, etc. you take a weekend or weekday and cook them and them freeze them. They do well frozen.

    Jim, I’m praying you use the right kind of meat.

    Btw, I had a vegetarian tell me there was no broccoli in the field I pointed to. He could see the plant, but had no clue what broccoli is like in the field. When I took him to it he looked sheepish.

    I will complain on people who do not bring an axe to cut collards. I have farmers that have heard it for years, trust me, nothing makes me more madder. That being said a lot of the clueless would only take the middle and leave me to scavenge. Myself and my neighbors ate good for a LONG time with frozen and fresh collards from the gleaning I did off 1.5 acres all for free.

  6. Here’s the Richmond Shalom Farms mobile vegetable market that I wrote about last year….that ain’t cabbage she’s holding.

    I think there is a market for prepared foods but I think providing the raw materials is still essential, and applaud these folks for this effort. Supply is not the issue, food deserts or not. I’m with DJ and VN on the wonders of a well-prepared mess of greens…but it is work. I eat other people’s! Try them at the Richmond Fan fried chicken outlet, Mean Bird. Heaven…

    • Shalom Farms sounds great. I assume they sell (vs give away) the food from that truck in the picture. If so, why couldn’t a local entrepreneur get a truck and go farm to farm buying vegetables at bulk prices and reselling them at a profit?

  7. We love collards and have no trouble at all getting them at WalMart. We also buy them at the Farmers Market and I have high respect for those that grow their own.

    The thing is – it is a mistake to talk down to poor folks about food, about how to grow their own or how to cook, etc. They’re poor, not stupid.

    At our pantry, in addition to canned, box, produce and bread, I forgot to mention – we also distribute frozen meat and drugs.. pampers, shampoo, etc. All of this is sent to the Food Bank from area stores and is usually in ample supply.

    The idea is that if you can save someone money on shampoo or frozen meat – it frees up money for other food needs.

    Also – the Food Bank distributes USDA as well as Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) for elderly over 60.

    All of these programs including Federal and corporate grants go through the Regional Food Bank which, in turn does it think.

    Ford donates trucks with coolers and those trucks go out to the various stores in the area to pick up the over-date meat, produce and bread and it comes back to the warehouse where volunteers from the various food pantries – a lot of them Churches – drive their own vehicles to pick up whatever stuff is available to take back and hand out on pantry day.

    It’s a good, efficient system, that gets food into the hands of people that need it – some of it rural and some of it urban (though not as urban as Richmond).

    I just think the framework already exists and works – it’s just a question of volunteers standing up physical pantries in places where they are needed – Churches are almost always willing to host them.

    We treat our clients with respect – like they were our neighbors – which they are. I’m surprised and shocked at how many elderly we have. They either don’t have social security or have very little and some of them cannot even afford Medicare unless Medicaid pays for it.

    But we are seeing less younger folks these days as the economy has improved.

    We also have a church garden where we grow fresh produce and distribute that when it is ready.

    It takes 20-25 people to run the pantry from those who go pick up the food to those who do “intake” for clients to those who pass out the food and take it to cars.

    The main thing about the Food Bank is that you get what they have – not what you’d like. 😉 Some days they have tomatoes and other days just green peppers that are way past their prime. It is what it is.

    • There’s nothing wrong with a food pantry other than it’s a charity … at least that’s my understanding. It meets an important need but doesn’t create small businesses, foster entrepreneurism or directly lead to self-sufficiency. Again, I think it’s a great undertaking but it’s different from my idea. The Mr Guevera from Jim’s article hits on an important point. He wants local ownership of the solution. Let’s assume there is demand for healthy food in the food desert. But the demand isn’t being met for some reason. Is it better for government or charity to meet the demand or for local entrepreneurship to meet the demand? I’m personally glad to hear the interest in local entrepreneurship. It might need government money to get started but once it’s going not only will people have access to healthy food but some will become small businesspeople as well. Doesn’t this create role models for others in the community?

      • The one in Fredericksburg is a registered charity but it’s also an entrepreneurial enterprise:

        First it charges 19 cents a lb for the food – to defray the labor and warehousing costs. That means that someone has to come up with the 19 cents and that folks who donate, often Churches.

        Volunteers sort and pack the food at the Food Bank.

        Second, it receives food from grocery stores and distribution centers that has gone out of date or will before it can be sold. The Grocery stores get a tax advantage from donating it and otherwise it would have to be disposed of through other means.

        The chains also send “in-date” food donations from time to time and at Holidays. Giant Food sends Turkeys. Others send Yams,stuffing cranberry, etc.

        Next time you’re in a grocery store – pick up a food product – ANY food product – and it will have a date on it. It’s a “sell by” date. It’s not the date the food goes bad – it’s the date that the food is not longer at it’s optimal freshness and is slowly starting to degrade.

        It’s these “sell-by” dates that drive the formation of the Food Banks and their satellite pantries. It’s an efficient and cost-effective way to essentially “recycle” food by targetting it to the folks that need it when it no longer can sell easily to regular customers who often won’t buy something past the “sell by” date. You guys ask your wives about this.

        It’s a “conservative” operation!

  8. There’s a basic problem with the food truck idea. Many poor people are on the SNAP program which are modern day food stamps. Most rules forbid using SNAP money to buy prepared foods that can be eaten on premises. Is a food truck a restaurant?

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