An Oasis In The Food Desert
Arcadia Mobile Market tackles food insecurity in Washington, D.C., by driving the grocery store around. Is food security just a school bus away?
Four years ago, D.C. Restaurateur of the Year and co-owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group Michael Babin solved a problem that had plagued him for quite a while: the sourcing of local and sustainable ingredients for his eateries was notoriously inconsistent. His solution was to embrace farm-to-table by creating The Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture. But Arcadia proved to accomplish more than solving one restaurateur’s supply problems. It is also addressing a very different sourcing issue, the shortage of supermarkets, through its Arcadia Mobile Market initiative.
The nonprofit Arcadia Center is nestled on historic Woodlawn Estate in Alexandria, Virginia, with its sustainable, demonstration farm serving as the primary source of vegetables for the market. The Mobile Market—literally a green grocers on wheels—was designed to address the surprisingly prevalent problem of food insecurity in the nation’s capital. As Babin explained to the Washington Post, “I didn’t want to do a food hub just for high-end restaurants.…I wanted to do one with great reach into food deserts.”
The United States Department of Agriculture defines “food desert” as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. The absence of grocery stores in low-income communities makes it very hard for people to choose nutritious products to feed their family, because every meal often comes from a corner store with few healthy or fresh options. Southeast Washington’s Wards 7 and 8, for example, have only one grocery store for every 2,585 residents. This is where initiatives like Arcadia Mobile Market show up.
A community resource
The market launched in 2012 - was Babin’s solution to this inequity in the District’s food system. He was having difficulty accessing local food for his restaurant, and he began to think: “If it’s hard for me with my purchasing power, what’s it like for other folks who don’t have the same resources,” says Benjamin Bartley, Food Access Director at Arcadia. Bartley, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a fellow at the international human rights organization, Freedom House , combines his culinary training and non-profit work experience to serve as navigator of the initiative. “Arcadia essentially bought a school bus and then I joined the team to make it into a market on wheels. That was about three years ago and we’re now halfway through our third market season and we have two market vehicles.”
The lime-green, 28-foot retrofitted school bus that serves as the nomadic home for the Mobile Market operates May through October, with often two stops a day, five days a week, in the food-insecure Wards 1, 5, 7, and 8 of Washington, D.C. and at one site in Virginia. As of July 2014, the market added eight more stops, thanks to its partnership with Martha’s Table, another invaluable D.C. community non-profit working to address poverty and food issues.
The Mobile Market’s mission “is to increase access to healthy, affordable food, regardless of how much you make or where you live,” explains Bartley. However, the market is far more than just a supermarket on wheels. It is a community resource working for the education and health of D.C.’s most food-insecure residents. The market offers several resources in collaboration with the items sold in the market. The staff provides customers with recipes as well as cooking demonstrations for the seasonal and at times unfamiliar produce carried by Arcadia. The market also visits schools in D.C. and Northern Virginia to use the powerful tool of early culinary education and to teach children about the health, environmental, and economic impacts of different food systems.
Prescription fruit, benefit veggies, our market
The market stops at several clinics around the city as well. This partnership with health care providers has proved important in Arcadia launching Wholesome Wave’s innovative initiative—the Fruit and Vegetable prescription program that pairs children with health care providers to provide prescriptions for discounted fruits and veggies in order to help shift diets, reduce obesity, and improve health. “We primarily receive them at our Parkside Unity Healthcare Center stop on Thursdays,” said Bartley. “That is where the patients receive their prescriptions and then they can just come right outside, and we can redeem the prescriptions. The barriers of transportation and time are completely removed.”
Arcadia’s “Bonus Bucks” program, which doubles the purchasing power of food assistance benefits, also contributes to the allure of the market, enabling residents to buy products that might otherwise be too expensive for them, like sustainably grown produce, eggs, meat, and dairy and locally sourced honey and granola. “In the past two years, we’ve had about 40 percent of our sales going directly to food assistance households,” says Bartley. The market is currently authorized to accept a variety of government-issued food vouchers, including SNAP/EBT, WIC (Women, Infants and Children Program), and Senior FMNP (Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program) vouchers.
The stop at LeDroit Park every Wednesday is a good representation of the inclusiveness of the market and what it is trying to achieve in the District. The parked bus is framed against the backdrop of a mural declaring, “This is how we live”—an illustration of the important service provided by Arcadia. “I like that stop because it’s in some ways like our market serves as a community hub. Since we’ve been going there for three years we have a very good customer base and we have folks from all incomes shopping,” says Bartley.
Arcadia Mobile Market is an initiative working to create a more equitable food system for everyone in Washington, D.C. The issue of food deserts may not be remedied immediately in certain wards, but the current and potential benefits of the Mobile Market for the community are undeniable. Arcadia’s focus on local and sustainable agriculture—all products are sourced from a dozen farms within 125 miles—is integrated seamlessly with the other priority of access. The ability to sell items produced outside of an intensive agricultural system is an essential component in uniting all sectors of a progressive food system. But the economic and health advantages may be the top priority for Arcadia's customers. The availability of subsidized, healthy products has the potential to shift shopping from the corner store or bodega and in turn to reduce the diet-related diseases associated with processed, nutrient-poor items. This makes Arcadia Mobile Market much more than simply a grocery store on wheels. It is a conceivable and replicable solution to food insecurity.
In fact, Arcadia is also helping to expand the Mobile Market model to other areas around the country through consultations with interested organizations. The continued progress and influence of markets like Arcadia may usher in a new revolution of pop-up grocery stores in food deserts across the nation. Maybe a solution to food insecurity will be found in an old refurbished school bus.