Road to Change: My Street Grocery Reaches the Underserved
One of the many good reasons to attend tomorrow’s FoodWorx: The Future of Food Conference is to hear how one young social entrepreneur took on the challenge of getting fresh, healthy food to populations in need. Amelia Pape is founder of My Street Grocery, a mobile fresh market whose mission is to increase fresh food access for all.
What started as a class project in Portland State University’s (PSU) Pioneering Innovation program turned into a full-time job, and, no doubt, labor of love. Amelia’s curiosity and love of food led her to research what is usually called food deserts. She prefers to use the term food imbalanced. It’s not only more accurate because access is a spectrum—with fringe foods (high-calorie junk foods from convenience stores) at one end, and many options for purchasing fresh foods at the other, but it avoids putting a negative brand on communities already in need. Twenty-three million Americans live in communities without access to fresh foods.
While the health benefits of fresh foods is undeniable, “It’s hard to get people who are living in lifestyles of urgency to change behaviors and think long term. They need to find the space to do that,” said Amelia.
One fruitful collaboration is with Legacy Health. Through a grant, My Street Grocery is able to serve patients that frequent a clinic for low-income individuals. As part of their checkups, patients are given vouchers to shop for fresh foods at the truck parked right outside the facility.
Through partnerships such as this and low-income housing organizations, Amelia is able to reach the right populations. They help spread the word about the truck’s schedule, which is important since many of her customers might lack access to a computer.
Not reinventing the wheels
Amelia is quick not to take credit for a mobile grocery. She’s also very pragmatic, unless you count the challenge of trying to mend an essential flaw in our social fabric. “I didn’t invent anything. People in other parts of the world are familiar with fresh food trucks.” She’s very aware that trust is a big part of what she delivers, in addition to tomatoes, carrots or ready-to-eat healthy foods for people lacking a kitchen.
“They’re being vulnerable when they’re buying their groceries from a real person and not a faceless corporation. A lost element today is that relationship people used to have with their grocer.”
That interaction is as important as access to healthy foods. The truck becomes a gathering place. Customers look forward to its arrival, allowing them to socialize with people in the community as they make their purchases. For some, it might be one of the few occasions to do so.
The big picture
A firm believer in collective action, Amelia reaches out to likeminded organizations to pool their energy and ideas, helping connect the dots on this issue of access. She envisions a web where no community is lacking in access to fresh foods. Because food reaches into so many areas of our lives, Amelia tries hard to avoid mission creep, focusing instead one simple idea: giving people the power to make a choice. Changing behaviors and systems is no easy task but she believes that small changes become big changes.
For example, though she tries to weave seasonality into her interactions with customers, it’s about helping educate them on why out-of-season items such as berries can be too expensive. She’s more interested in helping her customers stretch their dollars than preaching seasonal eating.
The My Street Grocery truck revs back up in spring, but that doesn’t mean Amelia loses touch with her customers. She was on her way to play bingo with some of her regular customers.
Visit the FoodWorx Conference website for the full list of speakers.
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Jane Pellicciotto is on the Slow Food Portland steering committee. She designs brand and communication tools for positive-change enterprises, as well as jewelry. She heard somewhere that chopping vegetables releases endorphins, so she keeps chopping.
Thanks for sharing