Karen Ann Saluga is learning to cook with zucchini.
“You can just put it in everything,” she explains. “You can make it by itself, with a little oil and an onion, or you can chop it up into other things, you know? And you could make it into a sweet bread if you want to, so it’s like a dessert.”
Saluga didn’t know much about zucchini before she discovered the mobile produce market Farm Express and began, as she likes to say, “eating right, day and night.” She doesn’t drive, and after her husband died in 2008, Saluga began relying on the local convenience stores in her neighborhood. They didn’t offer a lot of healthy food. “It’s too far to the Safeway, and my neighbors don’t want me bothering them. So I ate what I could get.”
Saluga and others like her are the target market of Farm Express, a pair of mobile produce markets that provide high-quality, affordable fruits and vegetables to residents with little or no access to healthy food.
Mobile produce markets are a mainstay of movements addressing the “food desert” — any urban area, according to public health officials, where it’s difficult to buy affordable, good-quality fresh food. U.S. Department of Agriculture maps show that metro Phoenix food deserts are numerous, and mostly found in urbanized parts of south Phoenix, on the westside, and near downtown’s urban core. Tempe has them, too.
“Everyone agrees that access to clean air and water are fundamental rights,” says Elyse Guidas, executive director of Activate Food Arizona, the seven-year-old nonprofit that operates Farm Express. “But access to food is privatized, somehow. Placing access to good food at the forefront moves our communities closer to good health.”
Farm Express is founded on the idea that nutritious food keeps people healthy but isn’t always available to every community, Guidas says. The nonprofit serves people — particularly seniors, veterans, and the disabled — in Phoenix and Tempe. Its produce is sold at cost and is tax-free; nearly all of it grown locally or regionally and sourced from Peddler’s Son Produce, a family-owned, Phoenix-based distributor, and from Sun Produce Cooperative, which distributes organic produce grown by small-scale local farmers.
Guidas’s team sells fruits and vegetables out of retired and renovated city buses. Each bus makes three or four stops per day several times a week, usually staying for an hour at each stop. Farm Express determines a community’s need by knowing its city, and not by consulting studies or collected data about who might be hungry.
“We’re thinking about distance and weather and the age of the people in a neighborhood,” Guidas says. “We’re thinking about transportation options. If you’re elderly and live a half-mile from a grocery store and it’s August in Phoenix, you don’t want to carry bags of groceries home. A bus ride with a week’s worth of groceries isn’t much better.”
Farm Express gets the word out with some social media posting and a little word-of-mouth. “But mostly with consistency,” Guidas says. “If you know we’re coming to your library or your community center every other Thursday at 9 a.m., you’ll be there.”
She points out that large grocery chains typically open stores in higher-income areas, leaving low-income communities to make do with unhealthy choices.
“Our competition is fast-food places where you can feed your family from the 99-cent menu,” Guidas says of the produce her organization offers. “It’s often perceived to be more expensive to buy healthy food, and in some cases it actually is more expensive.”
Farm Express wants to undo that thinking with messaging about better food access, how to find senior shuttle services that travel to grocers and farmers markets, and with incentives like its Double Up Food Bucks program, which allows low- and no-income customers who purchase with food stamps to buy twice as much food.
Although there’s no national organization overseeing the burgeoning food desert movement, Guidas belongs to an informal mobile market coalition. “We decided we were tired of solving these problems on our own,” she says. “We try to convene once a year to share best practices but mostly to say, ‘Hey, you’re not alone in this crazy work.’”
Even without national oversight, Guidas sees a momentum in repairing food deserts. She thinks city planners are slowly becoming aware that certain populations are left out when communities are being planned.
“Lower income neighborhoods historically have fewer grocery stores,” she explains, “but in recent years the movement has succeeded in getting planners to ask how they can change that for a community. We’re seeing more corner markets and farmers markets, more policy changes and advocacy help, too. That’s shaping a food system that hasn’t existed before.”
Saluga doesn’t know about policy changes or city planning. She knows, just lately, about zucchini. “Next time I’m going to look for some beets,” she says of an upcoming visit to Farm Express. “I remember I used to really like those when I was a kid.”