Step inside a reconditioned city bus in Chicago this Thanksgiving, and you can buy cranberries and green beans where commuters once sat. The Fresh Moves mobile produce market— which inspired other pop-up grocery stores across the country— plans to reopen on the weekend of November 23, intent on proving to larger supermarkets that there’s a market for fresh produce in food deserts.
It hasn’t been an easy to get this far. Some critics have questioned whether having access to supermarkets is the real public health problem, citing studies that say even when new grocery stores are added to a neighborhood, people often still make unhealthy choices.
Steven Casey, who first founded Fresh Moves with a single recycled city bus in 2011 and is working to get it back on the road next week, agrees that access isn’t the only critical factor. “If you’ve been without healthy food for so long, you might not necessarily know what to do if someone sells you that food today. There’s an education or re-education process, I believe, [that] is a strong component of what we need,” Casey says, explaining that Fresh Moves provides cooking demos and recipe cards.
“When you change someone’s perception of kale and they find out it can be tasty, they want to come back to you. It’s different than a fast food restaurant where it’s all about transactional count. We recognize in some cases we have to take a slower approach to educate our consumers so they become repeat customers."
But Casey says he still believes access is equally important—and just because a store might look relatively close on a map doesn't mean it's easy to get there. "If you’re relegated to public transportation, your view on accessibility is much different than those of us with cars. I live in a neighborhood that’s considered a food desert. And the only difference between myself and some of my neighbors around the corner is that I do have a car. I know that when I don’t have a vehicle, as much as I may have a desire to go to that wonderful store downtown, it’s not fun taking one or two buses to get there, and then turning around and carrying back groceries on the bus, or paying to take a cab, or trying to fit it into your schedule if you work late at night."
Fresh Moves, instead, brings food as close to someone’s front door as possible, as often as possible. With targeted stops at schools or other community centers, a few times over a day, the bus can bring a single-aisle produce department within reach of hundreds of people.
The organization chose to repurpose an old bus not just because it was mobile but because it could be used all year long, unlike a converted food truck used for a similar mobile grocery in Oakland, California. “A day like today in Chicago, where it’s 45 degrees, raining, and maybe snow showers, you can’t stand outside and shop,” says Casey.
The bus was also easy to get. Every 12 years or 250,000 miles, buses are retired, because the federal government will fund replacements at that point. So buses might sit unused on a lot, or be scrapped for parts. When they still run, they can be sold cheaply, or, in Fresh Moves’ case, donated.
Fresh Moves operates like a social enterprise, Casey says, but is registered as a nonprofit so that it can get donations like the buses and other philanthropic support. Since fruits and vegetables are low-margin items even for large grocery store chains, it would be challenging to run as a business alone. Even with some outside funding, the organization struggled to manage operations, and after parting ways with its executive director in August, decided to temporarily stop running to figure out a sustainable operating plan.
Now, the organization plans to partner with others to help reduce some of its costs. "We had challenges of going to normal produce houses as a little vendor, because then you’re buying at straight market prices," said Casey. Experts in produce sourcing will help try to bring those expenses down, and others with extra freezer space will share with the organization.
Casey is eager to get his buses back on the road, saying the community needs them, and the benefits aren't just about health. "We’re bringing back civility to the shopping experience—we don’t have bulletproof glass, we don’t have a security guard, we try to make the environment as open and welcoming as possible," he says.
"For the community, we need to restore our services. They want us back. There aren’t stores out there today. Here we are on a cold November day, and there’s somebody who last November was able to shop. This November—until we reopen—they’re not."