Food Desert Action: Mobile Produce Caravan

Over 600,000 Chicago residents live in food deserts, primarily on the south and west sides of the city. The health impact of the lack of access to fresh food is clear: communities in these areas have the city’s highest rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses. In the absence of grocery stores, residents of these communities either travel extensively to buy food or settle for less healthy convenience store and fast food options that are more readily available. A significant deterrent to grocery retail in urban communities lies in cost and risk of real estate investing. Food Desert Action’s Urban Mobile Market is a proposal for a mobile store that will fill a void in the urban food infrastructure. Eliminating the real estate aspect of business investment will reduce start-up costs and lower risk for the new enterprise. The Mobile Market will focus on providing fresh produce to food deserts in Chicago, starting with the pilot community of Lawndale in late 2010 and early 2011.

The Urban Mobile Market will be a one aisle grocery store on wheels built in a decommissioned and retrofitted piece of transit infrastructure: a CTA bus. It could be constructed in weeks versus years, the location is adaptable, and it could potentially serve multiple locations in a single day. It could easily scale up to encompass a fleet in Chicago, or be replicated in other cities. It uses available resources that exist in any major city. and opportunities for adaptive reuse that could be incorporated into the life cycle of transit infrastructure. Thus, we might imagine a public partnership for adaptive reuse in cities all over the US. Given the extensive size of the food desert in Chicago, a mobile market would restore food access to a greater geographic area more quickly and cheaply than a bricks-and-mortar store. In addition to providing instant access to fresh food, the Urban Mobile Market will provide additional economic, social and environmental benefits that would be immediately felt throughout the local communities.

All indicators point to a substantial market for groceries in food deserts. Analyses of stores operating in food deserts show substantially higher sales than the industry average. A combination of population density and the lack of competition drive profitability for stores located in food deserts. The challenge is not a lack of demand, but rather the difficulty of developing a cost-effective means of supply. While there are socially responsible grocery store projects in the planning phases, the immediate need remains while they develop. A new model is required to restore food access rapidly to communities, with enough agility to reach the areas of highest need. What’s most needed now may not be a grocery store at all, at least not in the conventional conception of a storefront or big box store that runs as a for-profit company.

Architecture for Humanity Chicago is a 501(c)3 charitable organization that seeks architectural solutions to humanitarian issues and brings design services to communities in need. Food Desert Action is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to eliminating food deserts while providing economic opportunities for Chicago communities. Food Desert Action and Architecture for Humanity Chicago have come together around a shared commitment to advocacy and social change through the built environment.

The project began with an open design charrette (an intensive collaborative design workshop integrating local community views and professional opinions) in late 2009 to develop schemes for the Urban Mobile Market. Outcomes from this planning meeting were then developed into marketing materials. Architecture for Humanity Chicago, an organization that opens up the traditional design institution to the benefit of the public, continues to take the lead in realizing the final design and construction of the Urban Mobile Market. To date, Architecture for Humanity Chicago has provided over 400 hours of design services to Food Desert Action, which has garnered nearly $100,000 in grants and sponsorships.

The Urban Mobile Market prototype has a variety of parameters that govern the project, with two primary functions in mind—the provision of fresh, healthy produce and the education of neighborhood residents on ways to prepare and incorporate the food they purchase into their lifestyle. The Mobile Market will be available to the community three to five days a week, year-round. The bus design incorporates energy efficient technologies from recycled flooring and shelving materials to solar panels on the bus roof that provide electricity for refrigeration and LINK card machines. The bus layout considers universal design for the elderly, youth and people with disabilities alike, while also accommodating easy loading and unloading of produce. Thoughtful design allows the entire bus to become an educational tool, with recipes, cooking tips and healthy lifestyle information displayed throughout the interior. The exterior of the bus offers an opportunity for income generating ads to be displayed on a custom designed skin wrapping the entire bus.

Partnerships with key community stakeholders create stopping points along the Mobile Market’s route. These partners will serve as hot spots and host classes on cooking and adult and child nutrition, and other activities on their property. These partnerships take the experience beyond the shell of the stationary bus to an activated public space where lessons can be transferred to individuals to share with their families and the extended community at large. Food Desert Action’s Urban Mobile Market activates public space by bringing fresh produce and educational programming to Chicago’s food deserts. By transforming the urban streetscape into an inclusive, interactive and multi-sensory environment, the project nurtures participation of the whole family and community in the routine food shopping experience. ◊


To learn more and get involved:


Food Desert Action Khalilah Worley


Architecture for Humanity Chicago