Mobile Market Would Be Oasis in Food Desert

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – On the west side of Youngstown, a former Sparkle Market along Mahoning Avenue has become a beauty products business.

At the Mahoning Plaza, a building that once housed Bottom Dollar Foods is today a plasma center.  Along Canfield Road in the Cornersburg district, a former Giant Eagle grocery is now a Dollar General and a pet salon.

This pattern is evident across the city. Once-thriving markets that supplied fresh food and produce to residents on each side of town have closed, hollowing out a vital source of nutrition for the most vulnerable population of the community.

So dire is the situation that four years ago, Mayor Jamael Tito Brown declared the city a food desert, citing  data that show a sizeable portion of the population lives one mile or more from a full-service grocery store.

“We told him we needed a grocery store in the city and wanted him to put a task force in place,” says Rose Carter, executive director and lead organizer of Action, a nonprofit coalition of faith-based organizations that addresses community needs. Just as the task force was beginning to take shape, however, the COVID-19 pandemic stalled any progress.

As it stands, just four full-service grocery stores sit within city limits, according to data compiled by the Department of Geography and Urban Regional Studies at Youngstown State University.  Three of these grocers are located on the peripheries, bordering other communities. A Save-A-Lot along South Avenue near the intersection of East Indianola Avenue serves as the single central grocer in the city.

To address this, in 2020, Action initiated “pop-up” markets across Youngstown in cooperation with another nonprofit, Flying High Inc., Carter says. These markets, supplied with fresh produce by Flying High’s Grow Urban Farm, set up temporary stands throughout the city on select days to provide access to food to otherwise isolated neighborhoods.

But the effect of pop-up markets is limited in scope and available only during the warm weather months. “The pop-up markets were not enough,” Carter says.

This led Action and its partners to consider an idea novel to Youngstown – a mobile grocery truck that could supply key areas of the community with fresh vegetables, fruit, dairy and frozen products year-round. “People in the area need food. Fresh food,” Carter says with emphasis.

Action and Flying High have partnered with other organizations to buy a full-service truck that will be retrofitted to carry fresh produce, refrigerated products and frozen items.

“You have to understand how economic deprivation limits people’s mobility,” says the executive director of Flying High, Jeff Magada.

His organization has purchased a building at the Campus of Care complex in Mineral Ridge to house a new effort, the Access Healthy Foods Mahoning Valley Initiative. The mobile market truck would be stationed here, he says, and owned by Flying High.

“It’s part of a larger, evolving food access program,” Magada says. The initiative will require a great deal of labor and Flying High would hire employees through its workforce development programs.

“You’ve got to procure, package and deliver the food,” he says.

The building is equipped with built-in freezers and loading docks.

Vicki Vicars, organizer and coordinator at Action, says the group examined the business models of other mobile food markets. 

“There were several – one of which was in Stark County,” she says. That project, StarkFresh, began in 2014, supplying food deserts in Canton with fresh produce. “We visited them and asked a lot of questions,” she says. “We’re modeling ours after their success.”

Today, StarkFresh operates its own standing grocery store in Canton while still providing its mobile service to inner city neighborhoods.

In Pittsburgh, Vicars says mobile grocery services helped to boost consumption of fresh food by more than 13% across that city.  “We found that mobile markets – grocery stores on wheels – were gaining popularity across the country.”

The mobile market initiative complements other regional efforts to arrest the city food desert crisis.  On Glenwood Avenue, for example, the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. is renovating a small plaza in the Idora neighborhood to develop a fresh produce market, says Executive Director Ian Beniston.

“I think both projects are needed,” says Beniston, also an Action board member. “What we’re doing is a fixed location. I think the mobile market is another type of project to bring temporary access to needed locations.”

In addition to access issues, says Beniston, the greatest impediment to nutrition and health in the community is financial. “Ours is really focused on the low-income community,” he says. Renovations on the building should be finished by the end of November and Beniston hopes the market could be open by late December or early in 2022.

Flying High’s Magada says he anticipates acquiring the truck this month. The vehicle – at 28 feet in length, essentially a small bus – could hit the streets by March. He assumes that supply issues will delay its retrofitting. The vehicle is small enough to not require a commercial driver’s license.

Initially, the truck will target different sections of the community four days a week, Vicars says. “For example, on the first day we could be on the North Side, and the second day on the West Side,” she says. Expansion to other communities will be gradual.

Vicars says a mobile market addresses transportation issues many face in the most impoverished areas of the city. “There’s a 39.9% poverty rate and families struggle all the time with reliable transportation,” she says, especially the elderly.

Food products sold through the mobile market are also very affordable, Carter says, and consumers can use cash, credit cards, or their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, cards.

Fresh foods will be supplied by local growers, she says.

The initiative has assembled a funding proposal of $500,000 to launch the service. Among its partners are the Youngstown City Health District, Mahoning Youngstown Community Action Partnership, YNDC, Healthy Community Partnerships, Northeast Ohio United Methodist District and Eastern Gateway Community College.

The effort has attracted funding from generous sources, Vicars says, including donations from three funds through the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley – $20,000 from the William Swanston Charitable Fund; $10,000 through the Arnett Family Fund and the Collier Expendable Fund; and $50,000 from the Western Reserve Health Foundation. Donations from the community are accepted through a GoFundMe page.

Once seed funding is in place and the mobile market begins operations, Vicars says profits would be pumped back into the venture.

“We think it will be self-sustaining when it gets going,” she says.

Pictured: Jeff Magada, Richard Kidd and Rose Carter are spearheading the project.