An eye-catching retrofitted bus rolled onto an empty lot in St. Louis’ near north side Saturday to offer up fresh produce and the ingredients for sweet potato chili.
The visit launched the official start of St. Louis MetroMarket, a mobile farmers market with a mission to increase access and interest in healthy food in neighborhoods that don’t have grocery stores.
A steady stream of JeffVanderLou residents walked through the bus Saturday morning, filling paper bags with apples, squash, beans and tomatoes.
Richard Claston and Jessica Graham, who live across the street, said they stopped by to try the chili recipe.
“I love chili. And it’s the season for it,” Claston said, adding that he hopes the mobile market comes back.
“I like the way it's set up in there, how they got the different recipes and different spices and everything. That’s pretty cool. ”
“It’s definitely different,” Graham said of the recipe. “They’ve got the chili powder and the tomatoes and the peppers. That’s about the only thing that’s normal.”
“I’ll try anything one time,” Graham added.
Showing residents how to use fresh produce and offering tasty recipes to try them in is part of St. Louis MetroMarket’s strategy to encourage healthy eating.
Outside the bus, driver Marilyn Williams handed out chili recipes while Danielle Cherry of Operation Food Search demonstrated how to make citrus kale salad.
Ordinarily MetroMarket will sell food at cost or slightly below cost to residents who live in neighborhoods without grocery stores. But this week, the operation didn’t bother with a cash register.
“We decided that since we’ve got a limited amount of time in the year to show it to them we would make it worth their while,” MetroMarket co-founder Jeremy Goss said, calling the free fruits and vegetables “an early Christmas gift.”
Goss said this visit is intended to introduce the market to the neighborhood. The bus will return on a weekly basis in April.
Food voucher prescriptions
To be financially sustainable, St. Louis MetroMarket has a business model that includes corporate sponsorships as well as visits to neighborhoods without grocery stores, known as food deserts.
So far the organization is sponsored by Saint Louis University Hospital and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, where MetroMarket cofounder Jeremy Goss works as a research fellow in pediatric plastic surgery.
In exchange for monetary support, MetroMarket will visit the hospitals once a week, giving staff easy access to local food. The bus stopped by for the first time on Friday.
When visits resume in April, the staff will pay market value for the produce and other goods, but pediatric patients with vouchers known as “food prescriptions” will be able to purchase the food at cost.
Pediatrician Josh Arthur is coordinating the voucher program through Cardinal Glennon’s outpatient clinic.
According to Arthur, the program will allow the clinic to start asking families whether they sometimes struggle to put food on the table.
“It’s hard to ask a question when you don’t have an answer. So if somebody said ‘yes’ before we had our partnership with the MetroMarket we would say ‘I’m sorry to hear that. How might I be able to help you?” Arthur said.
As director of a community advocacy program for pediatric residents, Arthur said his organization had been looking for a practical way to help children eat healthier for some time.
“We know that 60 percent of our patients struggle with food insecurity. What that means that is that kids are going home and at least some point in the year families are saying I don’t know where my next meal is going to come from,” Arthur said.
"Those children end up not only at nutritional risk, but many of them end up being obese because they don’t have access to high quality foods,” Arthur added. “They also end up being at behavioral and developmental risks. Hungry kids don’t do as well at school.”
A plan years in the making
Bringing a mobile farmers market to St. Louis food deserts has been a dream years in the making for MetroMarket founders Colin Dowling, Tej Azad and Jeremy Goss.
The dream came closer to reality last spring, when the team received a $75,000 grant from the Incarnate Word Foundation.
Originally the plan was to launch in July 2015, but retrofitting the donated Metro bus took longer than expected. But to Goss and Dowling, the delay was worth it.
“If we took a utilitarian approach — just put in any type of shelves, maybe steel-wire rack shelves, and delivered a minimal product to them — then certainly we could have been on the road a lot sooner. But we wanted to take our time,” Goss said. “We wanted to make something beautiful because ultimately the community deserves more than fruits and vegetable that they can get on the bus. They deserve full-fledged grocery stores. But if we’ve got to use the MetroMarket to provide a resource they always should have had it’s going to be a damn good-looking bus.”
The bus features wooden shelves and copper details designed by David Stavron of Shellback Ironworks. The checkout stand has a floral design painted into the copper using oxygen and gas.
To Dowling, who has a business degree from Washington University, the beauty of the bus will add to the shopping experience.
“That kind of works for us on both fronts: on the corporate side where we’re selling premium products and providing a premium experience, and likewise if we’re trying to incentivize people to purchase foods that they don’t normally purchase then we want to provide this experience that they’ve not had,” Dowling said.
At the launch on Saturday, Goss said he was overwhelmed the day was finally here.
“It kind of feels like that first day of school,” Goss said over the chatter of shoppers and the rumble of the bus. “You’re too nervous, too excited to sleep and you hope everything turns out just right and it does.”
The next test for the mobile market comes in the spring, when it returns to the hospitals and JeffVanderLou and tries to build a client base.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.