Known by locals as the Discovery Triangle, the metropolitan pyramid shape that constitutes the space between three Arizonan cities, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe, is asset rich, but fresh food poor. Defined by the USDA as a place where at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store, food deserts are directly linked with obesity and poor health as often the only sources of nutrition in these areas are fast food restaurants and pre-packaged meals found at convenience stores. The Discovery Triangle, however, has adopted a novel and sustainable way to tackle this problem for the city’s least mobile – a fresh food bus that brings the groceries to those who need them most on the Fresh Express.
“The origins of food deserts can be traced back to the development of suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s. As middle class and affluent families steadily left the urban core for newly developed suburbs, grocery stores fled with them, leaving behind low-income individuals and people,” explains Elyse Guidas, the Executive Director at Fresh Express. “Today, the Discovery Triangle is an area that houses many local businesses, universities, and public transportation hubs, but many of the residents in the area still lack access to healthy food options. Without a car, even more residents rely solely on whatever is within walking distance, which is usually a gas station or fast food restaurant.” Looking to solve this, Fresh Express was launched in 2014 thanks to a plethora of private sector sponsorships, and was soon making nearly 20 stops a week in the area. Stocking all sorts of seasonal fruits and vegetables (we even spotted some superfoods on their list of regular produce), Fresh Express’ commitment to the low-income community means it also accepts food stamps, matching purchases up to the first $10 so those who need it most can double their weekly shopping at no extra cost. “Our SNAP sales went from 7% of total sales in 2014 to 42% in 2015. That’s a huge jump!” reiterates Guidas.
“Increasing access to fresh food solves only one piece of the puzzle,” admits Guidas, however. “Through Fresh Express, many people now have access to these foods on a regular basis, but having access does not automatically change eating behaviors.” To that end, Fresh Express works to educate citizens through their joint program with the Junior League of Phoenix and ASU College of Nursing and Health Innovation. “Our Junior League volunteers provide recipe and nutrition information so that our customers are better equipped to prepare food for themselves and their families. And the nursing students follow the bus from site to site to offer basic health screenings to our customers so that our customers understand the important relationship between diet and health,” says Guidas.
The produce itself is sourced from a local Arizona wholesaler, and when possible, Fresh Express adds organic produce from a nearby farm. “If our Arizona borders were closed tomorrow, we would have enough food to feed our population for three days. That’s it,” says Guidas, acknowledging that the nutrition bus can only quench part of the food drought. “A lot of work needs to be done in order to create and sustain a healthy food supply chain in Arizona. We do not have a one-size-fits-all approach to this, but I do think that a mobile market creates momentum.” The momentum created is indeed in a class of its own, as Fresh Express has noticeably succeeded where others have failed – including the notorious loss made by a similar initiative in Chicago, just a couple of years ago. “Chicago’s market is what first gave us our spark for the idea, and after visiting their concept, we took some of their fundamental ideas and adapted them to a model that made sense in Phoenix,” explains Guidas. Involving the private sector for donations and funding has helped keep the Fresh Express going over the last two years and “moving forward, we are working diligently to develop a sustainability plan that takes into account a combination of grant money, revenue from ad space on the bus, and other sources to sustain our operations.”
The business model has seen the Fresh Express break even over the last two years of operation – a success by any measure – and nearly 8000 customers in the 2015 alone. However, the team there seem more inclined to measure their impact more than their sales. “If the success of Fresh Express in a specific area gives rise to a healthy corner store or grocery store that meets the needs of local residents, there are still other communities that still need access to food. That’s where we come in,” says Guidas. More importantly yet, the effect they’ve had on their customers on a personal level is what keeps them going.
“One of our most loyal customers, Gloria, recently missed our stop because she had a doctor’s appointment, but instead of waiting until our next visit, she took a cab to shop with us at a different site. When we asked her why she traveled so far to shop on the bus, she said that we were the freshest and only source of produce, and that she couldn’t wait two more weeks for her fresh food.
We had another customer come aboard with her young, autistic son. She told me that her son has struggled to eat fruits and vegetables his entire life, but because of his affinity for trucks and buses, she was able to use grocery shopping on Fresh Express as a learning tool for her son. Her son tried every single fruit and vegetable that she bought from Fresh Express.”