When you are tooling around the city and you notice what appears to be a Metro bus parked in a vacant lot, and a guy with a flag ushering you toward said bus, you have to check it out.
That's just what happened to me as I was heading northwest on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive photographing the 30 amazing firehouses in St. Louis on a sunny Saturday morning.
At a corner wedge in the Jeff Vander Lou Neighborhood, defined by Thomas Street and Wester Avenue, with Dr. Martin Luther King Drive as the hypotenuse, the scene included a big bus, whimsically painted in greens, yellows and reds.
There were tents set up and the guy flagging traffic toward the bus stood next to an A-frame sign advertising fresh, healthy, affordable food.
I pulled over to sate my curiosity.
Turns out the eye-catching operation I stumbled upon is the St. Louis MetroMarket. Here's a little background from their website:
The St. Louis MetroMarket is a non-profit mobile farmers' market that will serve all St. Louis area food deserts by providing direct access to fresh and affordable produce, meat, and staple goods and by advocating on the behalf of these communities on issues related to food justice, hunger, and health.
What is a food desert? Per the Economic Research Service of the USDA:
While there are many ways to define a food desert, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) Working Group considers a 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. To qualify as low income, census tracts must meet the Treasury Department's New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program eligibility criteria. Furthermore, to qualify as a food desert tract, at least 33 percent of the tract's population or a minimum of 500 people in the tract must have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. (source)
Simply put, think of areas where there are no grocery stores offering healthy, affordable foods within walking distance from low-income areas. Grocery shopping, especially for a family, is tough without a car.
There are many places in St. Louis that meet the above definition of a food desert, 15 per this source.
Now that you're grounded with a little information on this non-profit endeavor, here's what I learned after speaking with executive director, Lucas Signorelli who showed me around the operations including a cooking demonstration by nutritionists who were sauteing up onions and red peppers (both available on the bus) for some tasty recipes.
Lucas introduced me to Serena Bugett who showed me around the bus/market and answered some of my questions:
Ms. Bugett, a fellow city resident, is the Director of Community Engagement for MetroMarket. She indicated that the market was created by St. Louis University Medical Student Jeremy Goss as well as co-founders Tej Azad and Colin Downing (both Washington University alumni), all interested in bringing healthy, affordable food to areas that need it the most. As the writing on the bus says: "Food Is Medicine" and "Eat To Live".
The bus itself was donated by Metro. The bus seats were removed and floors and shelves were designed to make an easily accessible market. Re-purposed wood was obtained to give it that farm look. The team cut, sanded and stained the wood that makes the shelves.
The offerings are selected based on both the season as well as feedback from the community. Meetings were held to survey the residents on what items they would like to see available. There is an emphasis on locally farmed fruits, veggies, meats and cheese. There are ready to eat or prepared foods including BBQ sauce, marinades, preserves and apple butter from Amish farms.
Future plans include acceptance of EBT.
Jeff Vander Lou and Hyde Park
were selected for the initial launch. The market also sets up shop on North 14th Street near Mallinckrodt Street by the Holy Trinity Catholic Church on the first Saturday of the month. And they are at the JVL location every Saturday from 9:00 - 12:00.
Before the St. Louis MetroMarket selects a spot to serve, they ask for permission from the neighbors.
The group is researching additional spots it will be welcome. They do not simply identify the food deserts on paper and show up. They work with the community to ask for permission to set up shop in their neighborhood. They wait for an invitation from the community. This is the best way for the MetroMarket to get an idea of what the people want to purchase. If I've learned one thing about St. Louis' poorer areas, it is that the decent people that live in these areas are tough and proud. Asking for help does not always come easy. Therefore, the conversation and the request to be part of the neighborhood before you just show up is vitally important to establish goodwill and acceptance.
St. Louis MetroMarket gets that.
Simply put, the market is an amazingly transformed space. It is like an aisle in a small city market...not a bus. No seats. No fumes. Instead, brightly lit shelves, meat and dairy cabinets all in air-conditioned coolness. The driver's station is subtly hidden behind a burlap curtain. You walk up the stairs to a market as opposed to a bus. Hook a slight left and you notice a check out station manned by a cashier and then of course the food.
This is a place designed and made to feel real and professional...a place with dignity. It works. There is enough variety to make entire meals, not just a here and there offering of this and that. It is well thought out and sourced.
Don't just take my word for it.
Congratulations to St. Louis MetroMarket, and best of luck. You are good neighbors. The conversation I had and the work you are doing made my day. And seeing nothing but smiles on the faces of your customers makes me hopeful for our future.