Mobile markets bring fresh food to customers in Wisconsin

Shoppers line up to pay at the Hunger Task Force Mobile Market, which was parked outside the Highland Garden apartments in Milwaukee on March 16, 2022. The Mobile Market is a grocery store on wheels run by Malicki’s Piggly Wiggly and the Hunger Task Force which moves across Milwaukee County to visit neighborhoods that have limited access to fresh, healthy food — but the upfront and ongoing costs of mobile markets create a challenging business model. (Coburn Dukhart/Wisconsin Watch)

For Shirley Johnson, grocery shopping isn’t easy.

Johnson, a 64-year-old retiree who lives alone in Milwaukee, does not own a vehicle and must rely on others for food. She often calls her daughter or other family members who live in town, hoping to get a ride to the grocery store.

But if they’re busy or busy, Johnson has to pay someone to take her shopping, except when the store comes to her.

Once a month, Johnson waits for a long, colorful semi-trailer hitched to a truck to pull up outside the Highland Gardens flats. The narrow aisles of the Piggly Wiggly on Wheels are filled with fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products.

“We appreciate this truck because a lot of us can’t get to the store,” said Johnson, who buys basics and specialty items, including Lactaid for her lactose intolerance.

Thanks to a federal subsidy, groceries are sold at half price. Johnson, like others who shop on the mobile market, receives FoodShare and struggles to afford certain foods in regular stores.

Some nonprofit organizations are turning to these mobile markets as an alternative to physical stores to reach food-insecure populations.

Without the mobile market, Shirley Johnson, 64, a resident of Highlands Gardens, has to rely on her family or pay drivers to get groceries. “It’s a lot easier for me, so I won’t have to go to the store because they come to me,” Johnson says. “Yeah, Piggly Wiggly is coming my way.” (Coburn Dukhart/Wisconsin Watch)

The majority of Milwaukee residents are considered to have poor access to grocery stores, which is further complicated by a barrier to transportation — 13.4% of Milwaukee households do not have a vehicle, according to census data.

But mobile markets can struggle to stay financially afloat. A researcher who has studied mobile marketplaces for more than a decade likens them to “revolving doors” because of how often mobile marketplace projects start and then stop.

“There are often funds to get them started,” said Lydia Zepeda, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The question is to try to find a model that is financially viable – because they are expensive.”

‘Go off the beaten track’

The Hunger Task Force, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit, has partnered with Piggly Wiggly to offer mobile grocery stores.

“You really have to be creative if you want to solve problems like food insecurity,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force.

She added, “Just doing everything the same way all the time isn’t the answer, it’s thinking outside the box of what’s already working.”

All groceries in the mobile market are sold at half price thanks to a subsidy from the United States Department of Agriculture. Cash is not allowed, but debit, credit and state food aid program FoodShare cards are accepted.

The mobile market stops at community centers, seniors’ residences, public housing complexes and schools in identified food deserts across the metro area, from Brown Deer to Franklin. On average, about 25 to 35 people use the market at each stop, Tussler said.

According to 2019 data collected from a mobile market stop, 88% of purchases at the market directly benefited children. Older people also benefit.

“A lot of these seniors’ apartment buildings are in food deserts,” said Rick Lewandowski, senior director of services for Hunger Task Force. “We know it’s hard for older people to get to grocery stores, so they have to pay someone to get there, and their budget is already limited.”

‘Piggly Wiggly come to me’

The market does not offer any processed or canned food. Tussler said it inspires people to eat healthy when they often can’t afford it.

“They’re using their limited FoodShare resources to get on board (the mobile market) and get all the fresh food that creates meals rather than things to eat,” Tussler said.

Johnson said the strategy is working, helping customers with high blood pressure and diabetes make healthier choices.

“They’ve got some good quality stuff,” Johnson said. “And, you know, it’s a lot easier for me, so I won’t have to go to the store because they come to me. Yeah, Piggly Wiggly comes to me.

Lois Brown, 68, is helped with her groceries by Hunger Task Force Senior Services Manager Rick Lewandowski after shopping at the mobile market on March 16, 2022. The store on wheels serves areas in deserts designated food stalls, making stops at community centers, seniors’ residences, public housing complexes and Milwaukee County schools. (Coburn Dukhart/Wisconsin Watch)

Cornelius Sawyer, the chairman of Highland Garden, said that in addition to the mobile market, residents over the age of 60 can purchase a “Stockbox”, filled with healthy foods including rice, pasta and vegetables, which The Hunger Task Force provides low-income seniors for free.

Between the Stockboxes and other items available on the mobile market, 68-year-old customer Lois Brown said the services are “a blessing in every way” for residents of Highland Garden Apartments, especially those who are confined to the house.

“I mostly go out monthly,” Brown said. “Rain, winter, sun or snow.”

Break even

But bringing groceries to shoppers comes at a high cost.

Nonprofit mobile marketplaces require outside funding from sponsors or grants, which can be short-lived and impact the sustainability of operations. According to Zepeda’s 2016 study, food is also frequently sold at discounted prices, which ultimately hurts mobile marketplace results. And even when food is sold at retail price, it often doesn’t cover expenses, Zepeda said.

Piggly Piggly supplies the market with fresh produce and wholesome staples, and with the help of a federal grant, all food is offered at half the retail price to any shopper who visits the market. Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, explains that the market aims to inspire people to eat healthy, which can be difficult to do on a limited budget. (Coburn Dukhart/Wisconsin Watch)

“Overall, if I were to put a pen and paper on it, it breaks about even, if not even a bit negative,” Ralph Malicki, owner of Piggly Wiggly from Malicki told Racine, who joins the task force. on the hunger to run the mobile market.

Zepeda estimates the vehicle alone to cost around $150,000. Even a cheaper used vehicle often requires modifications ranging from $50,000 to $75,000, she said. The Hunger Task Force also has to hire a Class A tractor-trailer driver to operate the vehicle, which adds significantly to the cost, according to Lewandowski.

“(Mobile marketplaces) have their place, but they don’t serve a lot of people,” Zepeda said. “If you’re trying to solve hunger, mobile markets aren’t the answer. They are a solution, but they are not the the solution.”

Malicki knows this from first-hand experience. The mobile marketplace he operated in the Kenosha and Racine areas failed because “we couldn’t get enough traffic to the trailers. We couldn’t get enough consumer support to make it work. »

Expansion under construction?

A few valuable lessons have emerged from the Hunger Task Force mobile marketplace. According to a Milwaukee Fresh Food Access report, data collected from mobile markets could be used to determine potential grocery store locations. For example, Tussler said when the mobile market was parked for two weeks outside St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee, it showed there weren’t enough customers to sustain a grocery store in that desert. eating.

Lois Brown, 68, shops at the Hunger Task Force Mobile Market outside the Highland Garden apartments in Milwaukee on March 16, 2022. The Highland Gardens resident says the Mobile Market makes shopping more convenient because she doesn’t isn’t a way to get it in a regular grocery store. (Coburn Dukhart/Wisconsin Watch)

Tussler said the Hunger Task Force is working with smaller brick-and-mortar chains to offer the same 50% deals provided on mobile marketplaces to incentivize product purchases. So far, the nonprofit has partnered with the Chequamegon Food Co-Op in Ashland and the Outpost Natural Food Cooperative in Milwaukee to offer half-off product discounts.

Malicki and Tussler say they are determined to continue mobile markets in Milwaukee, which have been doing well for the past five years. And relaunching a trailer in Kenosha and Racine isn’t out of order, Malicki said.

“If we can be successful here, it could be a nationwide model that could be used in different food deserts in various regions where there isn’t much appetite to build a brick and mortar location,” Malicki said. “To be a part of something like this is amazing. If we could set the pace where this can be replicated in other parts of the country, that would be great.

While mobile markets aren’t a perfect or permanent solution for food deserts, Johnson has nothing to complain about — and two suggestions. She would like to see a wider variety of foods, and “we just wish they would come twice a month.”

Journalist Erin Gretzinger contributed to this report. the association Wisconsin Watch collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news outlets and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, published or broadcast by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

About Marc Womack

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