It may be easy to find a Primanti Brother's sandwich in Pittsburgh, but it is difficult in some areas to find fresh green beans and apples.
It is a problem that four graduate students plan to tackle with a set of wheels and an array of healthy produce. The group, Farm Truck Foods, is creating a mobile grocery store that will deliver food to Pittsburgh's low-income neighborhoods. By spring of next year, Farm Truck Foods hopes to hit the road with a bus that sells fruits, vegetables and meat wherever there is a need to irrigate Pittsburgh's "food deserts."
The mobile grocery store will target one of Pittsburgh's Achilles' heels. Just Harvest, an organization that fights hunger and poverty in Pittsburgh, released a report on June 7 about neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that have little access to healthy food. The report revealed that among cities with populations of 250,000 to 500,000, Pittsburgh has the largest percentage of people residing in communities with "low-supermarket access," according to a 2012 report prepared for the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Approximately 47 percent, or 145,245 Pittsburgh residents, experience low access and 71 percent of these residents are low-income.
Although the task seems daunting, the team is confident their project will be a success. "We have an awesome team that will be able to meet the needs of the community," said Meredith Neel, Farm Truck co-founder and executive director.
The other three co-founders are Landon DePaulo, Michelle Lagree and Lea Steadman. Three of the founders are enrolled in an MBA program at Carlow University, and one is earning his master's degree in food studies at Chatham University.
A passion for healthy food is about all the founders have in common. Ms. Neel and Ms. Lagree, both 25, work at Cigna Health Insurance, where they are frontline health coaches responsible for educating people about how to live a healthy lifestyle. Mr. DePaulo, who is 28, worked on a mobile grocery truck in Albany, N.Y., called the Veggie Mobile before moving to Pittsburgh. Ms. Steadman, 24, has a background in grant consulting.
The somewhat unlikely team met through a social-enterprise competition called Passion Profit Slam. The three Carlow students presented a plan for a mobile grocery store and so did Mr. DePaulo. The four were encouraged to combine their plans and apply for a $10,000 grant to fund the idea through Idea Foundry, which provides funds to startup businesses. Once they won the grant, the mobile grocery bus was full speed ahead.
The project is still in the planning phase. The organizers have not yet purchased a bus or secured food providers, but the vision of Farm Truck Foods is already fully formed. The team hopes to buy a bus, so that people will be able to walk onto the vehicle and do their daily shopping. This, they said, will be especially important in the winter when people would rather be on a warm bus than standing outside in the cold.
The group is unsure which communities will be a part of their daily route, but they said they will select neighborhoods based on Just Harvest's report, which investigated places in Pittsburgh with low food access. Part of the planning process will involve surveying the communities that are selected to glean preferred foods and shopping times. The team may find, for example, that in the beginning of the day parents dropping off their children at daycare will buy fresh food, or that at the end of the day, afterschool programs may provide hungry customers.
Farm Truck Foods will be a hybrid for-profit and nonprofit model. The educational aspect of the project will be nonprofit, but the actual food sales will be for profit. For this reason, the plan is to include chicken and dairy in the mix of food that the mobile grocery truck sells because produce is traditionally not very profitable, Ms. Neel said.
On the morning of July 18, Farm Truck Foods had its first meeting with community members. It was attended by 16 people from various organizations, including churches, nonprofits and universities. The founders shared their vision for the project and asked for the support of those in the room.
Farm Truck Foods organizers said that the community has been extremely supportive. When they attended their first Just Harvest meeting and presented their idea to a small group, they were repeatedly told, "Just do it!"
The main concern at that meeting was that there is little demand for fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods. The Farm Truck folks hope to overcome this hurdle through education, reaching out to community leaders, and partnering with local businesses and schools.
"One of the biggest things with education is that one size does not fit all," said Ms. Neel. "To start we're going to have to spread our wings and cover everything so nobody gets left behind."
Farm Truck will offer cooking demonstrations, free samples and recipes to engage people throughout Pittsburgh.
The team is eager to roll out its full plan. In the meantime, said Mr. DePaulo, director of community outreach, "It doesn't feel like a job to see a need and be able to do something about it."
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