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Mobile Market travels to city’s ‘food deserts’

Michael Cross stops his Vanderbilt Plant Operations truck and parks it in the middle of a public housing complex in Edgehill, trailer in tow.

It’s a dark, quiet and rainy Sunday afternoon. It’s likely to be a slow sales day, even for the weekend shift.

Cross opens and enters the trailer from the back, checking to see if the shelves are stable and setting produce and canned goods back into place after a bumpy ride. He takes out a box of receipts, some newly donated bags, and the all-important credit card machine, now capable of taking EBT food stamps. After setting up some tables and chairs outside, he is ready.

The Nashville Mobile Market is open for business.

The Mobile Market, on the road since February, sells fresh produce and other healthy foods. It operates four days a week, and has stops in the north, south and east areas of the city, including two stops in Edgehill, the city’s most prevalent food desert, according to a Vanderbilt study.

Cross, a Vanderbilt senior and director of operations for the Mobile Market program, has been involved nearly since its beginning, when Vanderbilt medical student Ravi Patel saw this specific need of the Edgehill community while he was working at a local clinic. The area he saw was a food desert, full of convenience stores and gas stations with sodas and snack food, but two miles from the nearest major supermarket, a Kroger store on Franklin Pike.

“In these communities that we’re targeting … our purpose is to provide a sustainable source of food,” Cross said. The aim is to lower financial barriers by keeping prices near wholesale or lower than Kroger, and to reduce transportation costs that come with taking a bus or driving.

“By doing that, we are able to provide a grocery store so people can buy food, put food on the table, and be able to live healthy active lives,” Cross said.

The group, while providing fresh and healthy food options, also tries to provide customer education about healthy eating and living. At most stops, food educators and recipe books are available to give customers information about how to use their food purchases, said Neil Issar, director of public relations for the market.

“Just because it’s healthy doesn’t mean it can’t taste as good or be as diverse as what they’re getting from the convenience stores that litter the area,” he said.

Blocks away from these convenience stores, the rainy day made a usually slow shift even more drawn-out.

A hard-of-hearing woman, after having Cross write down how much money she owed, made the first purchase of the day, one apple.

A snack, Cross speculated.

As the afternoon went by, a number of local customers walked through the 28-foot trailer, buying everything from eggs and yogurt to produce and canned goods.

One customer, who has multiple sclerosis, buys chili to try with her macaroni and tomatoes.

“Without the market, I have to go on my motorized scooter [to get food],” she said.

Another customer, Gladys Benton, goes to the Mobile Market’s Edgehill stop when she gets the chance, even though she lives in walking distance of a local grocery store.

“But they don’t have as much stuff as you all have, and it’s not as reasonable. So I enjoy meeting the market,” she said.

After this run of customers ended, Cross put some money into the cash box, and got a bag ready for his own shopping. Before he left Nashville for Memphis for Thanksgiving break, his parents wanted him to grab some produce.

“It’s great. I don’t even have to go to a grocery store,” he said.

In its first year, the market has already gained surprising success. From day to day, business is profitable and expandable for the non-profit group, who plan to become an official 501(c)(3) in the near future. The movement has also generated support and interest in and out of Music City.

“People called us and said they wanted help setting up their own version of the Mobile Market,” Cross said. “We thought about it a lot and said ‘Yeah, definitely.’”

Additional markets are currently being planned in six or seven additional cities, including Memphis, Dallas and Atlanta.

Midway through this recent afternoon in Nashville, however, help was on the way for Cross and the Mobile Market. Belmont senior Michael Cirelli came to volunteer for the rest of the shift.

Cirelli learned about the program through a junior cornerstone class. Before volunteering, he wasn’t aware of the needs of the community only blocks from campus.

“You kind of live in the Belmont bubble,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to get out there and get your mind open … to make a difference.”

Making a difference and providing a reasonable solution, while practical, is not the end goal for the group. Ideally, the group would like to hire employees and eventually send the truck and trailer out into Nashville six days a week.

But Cross said that in the future he wants the market’s last stop to be one most groups strive to avoid.

“Long term, we hope that the market isn’t needed anymore,” he said. “We hope that five years from now, there’s an active grocery store here that can provide more diversity of products, different foods, and can be here long term because that’s what the community wants and that’s what they really need.

“We never wanted it to be a permanent solution to food deserts.”

Issar echoed Cross’ feeling.

“If these areas have that label of food desert erased, we’ll no longer be needed but it means we’ll have done our job as well,” Issar said.

For now, though, Cross was done just for the day.

“It’s about that time,” he said, as the early winter sunset began to darken the sky.

In a matter of minutes, Cross and Cirelli put the tables and chairs back into the trailer.

Before they were fully closed, a mother and daughter walked up, hoping they were still open. A couple of minutes later, they left the trailer, arms full of food.

It’s a sight supporters of the market would like to see again.

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