published Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

Sponsors want to know why 'grocery store on wheels' isn't more popular in Chattanooga

Store clerk Sumner Grey waits on customers and Sandra Ratliff, left, and Shirley Pittman shop in the Mobile Market at the Emma Wheeler Homes on Tuesday. The market operates Monday through Friday in neighborhoods that are underserved by grocery stores.
Store clerk Sumner Grey waits on customers and Sandra Ratliff, left, and Shirley Pittman shop in the Mobile Market at the Emma Wheeler Homes on Tuesday. The market operates Monday through Friday in neighborhoods that are underserved by grocery stores.
Photo by John Rawlston.
  • photo
    Store clerk Sumner Grey sweeps leaves and acorns away from the door as he opens the Mobile Market at the Emma Wheeler Homes, where it is open to customers from 10 a.m. until noon every Tuesday. The market operates Monday through Friday in neighborhoods that are underserved by grocery stores.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

ONLINE

The schedule and locations for the Mobile Market may also be found at chattanoogamobilemarket.org.

SPONSORS AND PARTNERS

Founding partners and funders for the Mobile Market include Gaining Ground, the YMCA, Chattanooga Area Food Bank, Grow Healthy Together Chattanooga, Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities and the Hamilton County Health Department Step 1 initiative.

The Benwood Foundation's Gaining Ground initiative will end at the end of this year, but its three-year funding commitment to the Mobile Market had already been appropriated.

Mobile Market schedule and locations

MONDAY

Patten Towers, 1 E. 11th St., 10 a.m. to noon

TUESDAY

Emma Wheeler Homes, 4900 Edinburg Drive #A, 10 a.m. to noon

Eastlake Park, 3000 East 34th St., 1 to 3 p.m.

New City Fellowship Church, 4 to 6 p.m.

WEDNESDAY

Mary Walker Towers, South Market Street., 10 a.m. to noon

College Hill Courts, Grove Street, 1 to 3 p.m.

The Bethlehem Center, 200 W. 38th St., 4 to 6 p.m.

THURSDAY

Gateway Towers, 1100 Gateway Ave., 10 a.m. to noon

Avondale Recreation Center, 1305 Dodson Ave., 1 to 3 p.m.

Cromwell Hills Apartments, 3940 Camellia Drive, 4 to 6 p.m.

SATURDAY

Eastdale Food Lion, 3200 block of Wilcox Boulevard, 10 to 11:30 a.m.

Orchard Knob Elementary School, 400 N. Orchard Knob Ave., 12 to 1:30 p.m.

Glass Street at North Chamberlain, 2523 Glass St., 2 to 3:30 p.m.

More than 62,000 people in Chattanooga live in food deserts, yet in some neighborhoods as few as five people take advantage of a grocery store on wheels that comes to them once a week.

Even areas with the greatest usage of the Mobile Market see only 12 to 15 customers, said Sumner Gray, mobile market manager.

And officials want to know why.

The Mobile Market has operated here since June 2012, launching six months after several Food Lion stores closed and left a number of neighborhoods without a nearby grocery store. The idea for the mobile market came from local resident councils and neighborhood groups, organizers said.

Each week, a 24-foot trailer brings fresh produce, dairy products, eggs and canned goods to 13 neighborhoods ranging from East Lake to Orchard Knob, from New City Fellowship Church to Mary Walker Towers. The trailer goes to the same location at the same time on the same day in each neighborhood and stays for two hours. EBT cards are accepted.

Mostly, the prices are about what grocery stores charge, though some fruits and veggies can be had for 15 cents. But prices could be even lower if participation improved to the point that organizers could buy in bulk at wholesale prices.

And while participation is lower than organizers would like, it has risen.

YMCA District Executive Bill Rush said usage of the Mobile Market increased 60 percent from 2012 to 2013. Part of the reason for the increase may have been a change in operating times at some sites, he said.

In total, the Mobile Market has 300 to 400 transactions per month, but the goal is to raise that to 500 to 750 per month, said Rush.

That would help reduce operating losses. The market costs $80,000 a year to operate, and grocery sales from the market are covering only half the operating expenses.

Rush said he hopes the Mobile Market eventually will become self-sustaining.

"This is a test," he said. "It's been a learning laboratory. We are constantly evaluating. Do we hope that five years down the road that it might be sustaining? Absolutely. ... We're not quite on target, but we're significantly better this year than we were the first."

Rush said the Mobile Market focuses more on providing people with healthful food than it does on making a profit. Its success can't be measured by numbers alone, he said.

"It is one family at a time, improving the quality of their health," said Rush. "If they can through healthy eating reduce their risk of diabetes, or other chronic diseases that's going to have a significant impact on the quality of their life."

The Mobile Market is halfway through its three-year commitment. Organizers have yet to determine whether the market is sustainable.

Of the 13 communities that the Mobile Market serves, four -- East Lake, East Chattanooga Glass Street, Orchard Knob and Eastdale -- have an average of five customers or less during the allotted two hours, said Gray.

Those communities have the lowest traffic flow in the program.

Emma Wheeler Homes, New City Fellowship Church, Gateway Towers and Mary Walker Towers are the Mobile Market sites with the highest traffic flow, generating about 12 to 15 customers per two-hour visit, said Gray.

Octavia Clark comes to the Mobile Market every time it stops at Emma Wheeler Homes. She buys her fruits and veggies from the traveling store. She says she especially appreciates having the Mobile Market in her community because it allows her to walk to the store and shop.

The market carries almost everything but meat.

"They have good vegetables and fruit. It's good quality and it's nearby," she said.

At 49, Clark said she has high blood pressure and is making healthy food choices with the Mobile Market.

"I'm trying to eat better now that I'm getting older," she said.

This week the market was offering Bilko Napa cabbage, apples, green cabbage, butternut squash, muscadine grapes, eggs, honey, tomatoes and peppers, all provided by local farmers and at prices comparable to local grocery stores, Gray said.

Tupelo Honey Cafe has joined the effort to bring more people to the Mobile Market by hosting family dinner night in the four communities where traffic flow is lowest.

"We're getting out in the community and helping people to understand it doesn't have to be difficult to be healthy," said Elizabeth Sims, Tupelo Honey Cafe's vice president of marketing.

The Tupelo Honey chef purchases food from the Mobile Market and then prepares a communitywide dinner for residents in the neighborhoods to show them how the market could be useful to them.

This week the chef prepared dinner for East Lake residents, and Tupelo Honey contributed an additional $7,000 to the Mobile Market to assist with marketing.

•••

Rush said he doesn't want people to think that their community will be eliminated from the Mobile Market program, but organizers may seek community input about how it could be more useful. He and a leadership team from BlueCross BlueShield are surveying residents in the 13 communities to learn what's needed to get people to use the Mobile Market more.

This winter, organizers will begin looking at what changes should be made to draw more residents to the Mobile Market. They are considering time changes at some locations, hosting community dinners with food from the market and ways to better educate the public about the market.

Organizers already have learned that a simple change can bring results.

Gray said business increased in East Lake in the spring when the Mobile Market's time in the neighborhood was changed so the trailer is still there when children get out of school.

"We hope that each neighborhood can adopt the Mobile Market as a place to shop in between grocery store visits," said Rush. "We're trying to get them involved and let them know we're there."

Contact Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com.

about Yolanda Putman...

Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...

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