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VOL. 35 | NO. 13 | Friday, April 1, 2011

Healthy choices

VU students, mobile market deliver better options to ‘food deserts’

By Tim Ghianni

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With a nod and a bright smile, Chandlér Bradley, 63, glances up from the cashier’s table at The Nashville Mobile Market.

“This is good,” he says of the portable business that on this day has rolled into the courtyard in the shadows of Gernert public housing development – the high rise and cottages at 12th Avenue South and Edgehill – in the heart of the city’s food desert.

“Why? Because this loaf of bread right here is $3 across the street,” he says, wiping hands on his Eddie George/Steve McNair Titans Super Bowl sweatshirt while a market volunteer bags Bradley’s loaf of wheat-bread and assorted produce, his fresh and healthy haul for the day.

Alexandra “Alex” Arnold , executive director of the board of VU students and others who haul this 28-foot trailer – interior walls lined with shelves of produce, eggs, milk, juice, lean meats, rice, canned goods and other healthy foodstuffs – pulls a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes and smiles.

“I love watching the people buy their groceries,” says the senior with majors in Economics and Public Health. “It’s also a great learning opportunity.”

This market recently embarked on its mission of rolling into Nashville’s food deserts and selling healthy, fairly priced groceries in isolated urban pockets where convenience stores and tobacco/beer shops are the primary neighborhood shopping opportunities.

“God bless you,” says Philip Crouse, after stepping down from the trailer, his basket overflowing with items he’s found on the precisely organized shelves.

“I’ve been coming here since they’ve been coming here,” says the proud 61½-year-old of the market, which begins its schedule of seven stops per weekend with the late-morning Friday setup at Gernert.

Crouse hoists his basket, filled with bananas, grapes, yogurt, strawberries, spring onions and apple juice. “I don’t have to catch a bus to go out to the store,” he says, noting the nearest supermarket is a Kroger, perhaps five miles away, in Berry Hill.

Instead of spending fixed income bucks on bus fare, he walks out the door of his high rise and ascends the gently inclined ramp into the trailer, where on this day everyone seems to be chirping about how sweet the grapes are, advising others to pick up a bunch.

Crouse stuffs his haul into compartments on both sides of his walker.

“It’s good what they are doing,” he says. “Besides that, I meet some wonderful people out here.”

When Arnold asks him if he’s found everything he needs on this day, he embraces her. “You are helping everybody,” he says. “Bless you all.”

Isabel Acebedo agrees this market, with its shelves bulging with healthy foods, addresses a real need. “What they are doing is important for your health,” she says. “I’m going to be 68 years old and I always ate a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Until Arnold and her crew began bringing the healthy cargo to this housing development for seniors, getting fresh produce meant a trek to the grocery, sometimes difficult for Acebedo and her neighbors. “It feels great to be able to get the fruit and vegetables right here. I raised my children to eat healthy. And I do too.”

While the grapes seem to be the talk among shoppers, Acebedo also has bananas. In fact, almost everyone stepping from the trailer’s shopping aisle has at least one banana if not a whole bunch.

“I eat bananas every day for potassium,” Acebedo says.

Mobile Market schedule


The Nashville Mobile Market has seven stops every weekend:

FRIDAY: 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at Gernert housing development (12th Avenue South and Edgehill Avenue); 2-4 p.m.  Vine Hill Towers (625 Benton Ave.)
SATURDAY: 9:30-11:30 a.m. Parks at Hillside (1500 Hillside Ave., Youth Life Center lot, across from the leasing office); noon-2 p.m. Edgefield Manor, (525 Shelby Ave.); 2:30-4:30 p.m. Edgehill Apartments (management office, 1277 12th Ave. South)

SUNDAY: 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Hart Street Church of Christ (13 Hart St.); 2-4:30 p.m. Edgehill Apartments (management office, 1277 12th Ave. South)

Organizers have experimented with various locations and other stops could be added.

Executive director Arnold – “that’s an awfully fancy title,” she says, self-mockingly – notes that while they are still figuring out what types of foods to stock when setting up their portable oasis in Nashville’s food deserts, there is no doubt bananas belong on the trailer on every trip.

“We know that we can go through two cases of bananas each weekend,” says the young woman, who grew up in St. Louis. The market is still experimenting with other produce – greens, onions, potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, turnips, oranges and much more – to determine how best to answer the supply-and-demand formula.

“Some of the produce lasts two weeks, but a lot of it, we have to get rid of after the weekend,” she says, noting that after the Mobile Market closes up Sunday evenings, the leftover is sold “at a loss” to Mobile Loaves and Fishes for that organization to use in feeding the city’s hungry and homeless.

And while Arnold and crew are happy Loaves and Fishes can make use of the excess, the ideal is for the Mobile Market to have as little leftover as possible by more accurately gauging customer desires.

“We’re getting better at predicting how much we need to buy,” Arnold says. “We’re getting the hang of what to order and what people are looking for. It mostly depends on sales from the previous week.”

Still for this young business, it remains very much guesswork Wednesday nights when the volunteers go to H.G. Hill in Hendersonville, where they purchase meat, dairy, canned goods and other staples through that store’s supplier, Associated Wholesale Grocers. Their Mid-South Produce delivery is on Thursday mornings.

“We’re kind of winging it,” Arnold says, with a bright smile. “It’s trial-and-error right now.”

Basically buying the amount the clientele will purchase and cutting back on the excess – any grocery retailer’s desire – will enhance the profit-loss picture.

For make no mistake about it: While the aim is humanitarian, this is a business – and organizers want to make enough money to keep it thriving for the long haul.

“Right now our goal is to make a 28 percent profit,” Arnold says, noting that the 20-member board of directors set that figure through research at grocery stores.

“Of that profit, 50 percent goes back into the operating cost of the market. Then we give 25 percent to the Organized Neighbors of Edgehill and 25 percent to the Shade Tree Clinic in East Nashville.”

That free clinic – staffed by Vanderbilt Medical students – has close ties with the market because Ravi Patel, a Shade Tree worker and second-year med student, enlisted Arnold while exploring the mobile grocery prospects last summer.

“I founded the Nashville Mobile Market after I recognized the need while I was working at Shade Tree Clinic,” says Patel, co-executive director of the clinic at 222 Grace St., in the McFerrin Park Community of East Nashville.

“I was seeing patients at Shade Tree and I saw four different patients, all of whom complained about not having access to healthy foods, and I began looking at other projects I’d been looking at in the past.”

Robert Miller, Shade Tree’s medical director and associate professor of clinical medicine at Vanderbilt, encouraged Patel to come up with a plan for a real grocery store near the clinic.

A standalone grocery wouldn’t be feasible, but the Mobile Market idea seemed like it had a chance, according to Patel.

As a part of a Health Service Delivery to Diverse Populations undergrad course at Vandy, he had worked out a formula for The Mobile Market.

He figured it was time to realize the dream in the real world.

“I enlisted Alex to be the executive director of the Mobile Market, because I knew her abilities and I’ll be a third-year medical student next year and won’t have as much time to devote to Shade Tree and Mobile Market, because I’ll be seeing patients in the hospital.”

So far, he says, the vision is bearing real fruit. “It’s going much better so far than I expected,” he says.

But getting the market up and running meant recruiting. “We did a lot of research and got more people on board,” says Arnold.

When the trailer first pulled in here at Gernert in February, all the volunteers were Vanderbilt students. But representatives from other universities have enlisted.

Carlson Swafford, 23, a Biblical Theology master’s student at Trevecca, is a recent volunteer.

“I came out to help because I think it’s a travesty that people don’t have access to healthy foods. I’ve talked with some of them and they say they have to walk five miles to get their groceries,” he says.

Other shoppers note that they sometimes have to pool their money to pay for gas for a fellow resident to drive them to a grocery. With $4 a gallon looming, that cuts deeply into the food budget for those on low, fixed incomes.

“I get $16 a month worth of food stamps,” says Henrietta Buckley, 67. “And I was spending $20 to get back and forth from Kroger. You do the math.”

Mae Kendricks, 74, on this day purchased grapes and bananas. She’s not sure, but she may come back later in the day. Strawberries look good.

“I came down here last week, too,” she says. “Having the vegetables and everything right here helps us a whole lot, helps the people. We don’t have a grocery store around here.”

“I been coming here ever since it started,” says Mildred Avery, 73. “We didn’t have a way to the store, so that was bad if you needed vegetables. I have a car, but my daughter uses it now to get to work, since hers broke down.”

Then she whispers, conspiratorially, “It would be nice if they could get some boiling meat. I like it to cook with. I don’t eat it.”

The ham hock and fatback issue is one that’s often raised, according to Arnold, who not only runs the operation but often drives the pickup hauling the trailer to its location.

“We have sliced turkey, ham, chicken and turkey bacon,” says the attractive 21-year-old. “We have a lot of requests for meats that can be used with greens but we can’t do it.”

This market’s mission is to bring healthy food into the food deserts. While some of the board members are Vanderbilt business students, who use this as real-life practice for their careers, others are medical students or are otherwise involved in public health issues.

Chunks of animal fat simply don’t belong on the shelves devoted to good health. In fact, Arnold has offered advice to some of her customers on how apple juice can be used as a cooking ingredient.

Dedicated to the mission of bringing wholesome foods to the inner-city, she’s eager to share her Vanderbilt education with her clientele.

Not all lessons are in classrooms, though. On this day, Arnold learns eggs don’t always travel well, even in a refrigerator inside a trailer. Before opening up for the day she picks through each carton to inspect, one –by-one, the merchandise, discarding the cracked eggs.

“It’s a great learning opportunity,” Arnold says. “We’re learning about business. We’re learning about a whole lot of stuff.”

She admits that the regular meetings of the board, the planning for and procuring of supplies and the basic logistics of hauling the trailer and getting the right number of volunteers for each stop is “huge.”

The payoff is obvious in her smile when customers file from the trailer, toting fresh vegetables, lean meats and healthy dry goods.

“This is what makes it worth it,” says Arnold. “I love it when we are out here, helping people. This is what I enjoy.”

Tim Ghianni spent almost 3½ decades as a writer, columnist and editor at daily newspapers in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Now a freelance writer and journalist-in-residence at Lipscomb University, he and his family live in Nashville’s Crieve Hall neighborhood.

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