Mobile Markets in a Midwestern Desert
Pushing back against institutional poverty and starvation in St. Louis.
Food deserts are often and ironically confused with “food desserts,” and thus the former is often not taken as seriously as it should be. These deserts, which are both urban neighborhoods and rural communities without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food, exploded in the wake of the grocery store chains abandoning their communities during a time of crisis to seek higher profits amid rampant affluence.
One’s level of access to food is tightly linked to institutional poverty, and while food is something that can be artfully plated and photographed, it’s also a life-altering necessity that too few children, families, and communities have access to in the St. Louis metropolitan area. On college campuses in St. Louis, including Washington University, which boast a nearly constant abundance of freshly cooked meals, healthy snacks, and fresh produce, it’s difficult to imagine true hunger.
While hunger may not be visible inside the Washington University bubble, it lies right on its doorstep. It’s a root cause of high infant mortality rates, school dropouts, and poor performance at work. It’s far too common and yet frustratingly invisible. St. Louis feels it, but major corporations are turning their backs on those suffering true hunger. The Shnucks in North St. Louis and the Foodland on South Jefferson Avenue are a few of the many supermarkets to flee their locations in low-income St. Louis neighborhoods in recent memory.
Without access to reliable or regular transportation, citizens of these towns are inclined to rely on local convenience stores and fast food restaurants in order to provide basic sustenance for themselves and their families. The inhabitants of food deserts are ill-fated, no matter which way they turn; if they seek healthy food options at big name grocery stores, then the transportation costs are astronomical, and on the other hand, the limited menus and few affordable, healthy options at the local fast food establishments can lead to malnutrition, disease, and a reduced cognitive ability at school or work.
In the absence of large supermarket chains, dollar stores have multiplied like rabbits and are suffocating their shoppers, trapping them. These chains, including Dollar General and Family Dollar, make up nearly 70% of all new stores in St. Louis neighborhoods designated as food deserts. Additionally, these stores are rapidly consolidating and monopolizing the cheap, low-quality food market, which reduce any corporate incentive to supply a more diverse selection of higher-quality food. With nowhere else to shop, the residents who live in food deserts are in many cases limited to unsustainable options for nutrition or starvation. Being host to ubiquitous fast food restaurants and convenience stores, these locales are not only facing a food quantity shortage, but more specifically an absence of affordable, healthy meals. These communities are afflicted by obesity, heart disease, and an overwhelming amount of other medical concerns that could be better prevented with increased access to neighborhood grocery stores.
The St. Louis Metro Market is a potential solution to prevent these afflictions. It’s one of many steps that the Washington University community has taken to eradicate these preventable diseases and build stronger neighborhoods. This market managed to transform a former city bus into a mobile farmers market that could transport food to low-income areas identified as food deserts.
The Metro Market prides itself on providing locally sourced, affordable, and healthy food to its patrons. Long before it opened its doors to underserved St. Louis food deserts in May 2016, it was merely a concept in the minds of two Washington University undergraduates. In 2013, Colin Dowling and Tej Azad were inspired to induce change in a myriad of St. Louis neighborhoods when taking a social entrepreneurship course.
The St. Louis Metro Market, as it became known, works to increase supply as well as demand for nutritious and affordable food in these areas. The Metro Market was inspired by a mobile food service in Chicago, and over the course of the following years, additional members of the Washington University community joined the team to help bring this concept to other similar areas in St. Louis. The St. Louis Metro Market has since received a number of accolades and overwhelming support from the community, including a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to action status, numerous community grants, and a bus donation from the St. Louis Metro to be used as the inaugural mobile market.
Their success comes from the founders’ belief that open and transparent dialogue between the Metro Market and its customers creates lasting and sustainable change by listening to people living in food deserts, whose needs and insights are often silenced. Recently, the Metro Market responded to the community’s desire for health education and began to offer nutritional information and food preparation demonstrations so that the patrons can learn different ways to prepare the produce and other groceries that they purchase.
Consequently, the Metro Market has made undeniably significant progress in attempting to create nutritional equity throughout the entire St. Louis metropolitan region. However, the fact still stands that nearly 24 million low-income American households are at least a mile away from a supermarket. This is especially significant given that low-income communities in general tend to have half as many grocery stores as their wealthy counterparts. When standing at the heart of the bustling and beautiful Washington University campus, it can be difficult to realize that starvation and injustice are at our doorstep. As injustice continues in our community, it becomes increasingly important for Washington University students to leave the bubble and become better educated about the struggles to assist and take part in the triumphs of our community.