The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Inner-City Produce Trucks

Inner-City Produce Trucks

Shoppers and Trends

August 30, 2009

To Lisa Johanon, who has lived by choice for 22 years in the inner-city Detroit neighborhood, which she serves, residing in a food desert is no fun, and compromises nutritional choices. "Their problems are my problems," she told SupermarketGuru.com. 

So she made a difference. About a year ago, the Peaches & Greens produce truck she operates took to the streets filled to the brim with 75 different fruits and vegetables at value prices (some grown and harvested by volunteers at its two half-acre community gardens), as well as refrigerated milk, butter and eggs.  

The produce truck has been an unqualified hit. Routes that were initially four days a week between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. have expanded to six days a week between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. (snowy months excluded). Money is tight here, however. The daily take ranges from $250 to $300 per day, when breakeven is $375, Johanon explains. Still, the truck accepts cash, food stamps, debit and credit cards, with no minimum purchase required.

The Peaches & Greens route traverses a three-mile perimeter where 20,000 people live and are otherwise served by just one independent grocer and a small produce storefront. Area residents who want to buy perishables like milk have to go to liquor stores (there are 26 in the neighborhood) or gas stations, and know there's a high chance that what they buy will spoil in a day.

"They're used to being treated poorly,” Johanon says. “We emphasize good customer service. It baffles them sometimes."

Johanon has learned a lot about her community from the program. The majority of the truck's customers are men. Also, her customers prefer seedless green grapes, strawberries, cherries, bananas and blueberries to seedless cucumbers and mushrooms. But perhaps most importantly, she’s learned that there is demand for produce, even in the inner-city.

Similar success stories are popping up in other urban areas. The Veggie Mobile, run by New York’s Capital District Community Gardens, serves senior centers and densely populated areas in Albany, Schenectady and Troy. City Fresh is a program in Northeast Ohio that works to improve access to fresh, locally grown food for urban residents. The Buffalo Grown Mobile Market brings locally grown produce to underserved neighborhoods in Buffalo, New York. And so on.

The lack of access to healthy foods in disadvantaged neighborhoods is a growing problem across the nation. In Detroit specifically, where Peaches & Greens operates, more than half of the residents must travel at least twice as far to reach the closest grocery store as they do to reach a fast-food chain or liquor store. A 2007 study in the area concluded that Detroiters have limited access to full service grocery stores, a scarcity of fresh food and a lack of transportation. As a result, Detroit has one of the nation’s highest obesity rates and disproportionate rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm is hoping a new initiative will help to change those unfortunate statistics. Last week, Granholm launched a program of low-interest loans to entrepreneurs that want to bring fresh produce daily to other underserved areas of the city. Peaches & Greens is consulting on this pilot program, called MI Neighborhood Food Movers. The ultimate goal of the program is to inspire healthier behaviors and lifestyles in disadvantaged areas.

“Citizens should not be denied access to fresh, nutrient-rich food choices, particularly in our underserved communities,” said Governor Granholm. “Providing easy access to fruits and vegetables with a very reasonable price tag will go a long way toward helping to improve the overall health of Michigan citizens. We are committed to make this happen.” 

"By making good food accessible,” Johanon adds, “we change people's thoughts about what to eat.”