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Politicians love to blame poor people for making bad choices, but the nutrition game is rigged in urban “food deserts,” where grocery stores are few and many low-income residents lack transportation.
In big swaths of Lansing, it’s easy to zip off to the corner and grab a fifth of vodka, a cigarette or a frosted Long John, but it can take three bus transfers and half a day to get a fresh apple or a tomato.
After wrestling with this persistent problem from several angles, the nonprofit NorthWest Initiative is summoning a ghost from the streets of old Lansing for help. If all goes according to plan, a mobile farmers market will bring produce to the people this summer.
They have a small bus, thanks to a grant from the county. A coterie of eager volunteers is raring to go. Now they need another $50,000 to convert the van, hire a market manager and get the radishes rolling by the end of June, when fresh produce really starts tumbling in.
Peggy Vaughn-Payne, director of the NorthWest Initiative, said the idea has been in the works for about three years, but its roots go much deeper, when vendors used a horse and cart, or set up on street corners.
The group has tried other ways to get fresh produce to its service area, but it hasn’t been easy. Vaughn-Payne said they’ve tried to draw a grocery store to the west side with no success.
The Corner Store Project, a partnership with ubiquitous Quality Dairy stores to bring fresh fruits and vegetables into the neighbor hoods, started out promisingly in 2008 and ‘09 at the Pine and Saginaw streets QD store and spread to 11 stores.
“QD said, ‘We’ve got this, we know what to do’ and we backed away,” she said. “They said they didn’t need our assistance anymore, but looking back, no, they really didn’t have it.”
Quality Dairy district manager John Christensen said the program was discontinued by “mutual decision.”
“We were OK, we were semi-successful, but the problem was the consistency,” Christensen said. Farmer deliveries, he said, were irregular compared to “what we could order on a daily basis.”
“Once we built that client base we couldn’t maintain it and we went back to what we were doing,” he said. The Pine Street Quality Dairy store, however, continues to have about 4 feet of produce baskets with onions, corn, potatoes, grapefruit and other items.
Vaughn-Payne said the variety and placement of fresh produce is not what it was when the Corner Store project was in full swing.
“[Quality Dairy] is very key and they could do a much better job of getting fresh fruits and vegetables into the hands of our lower income population that use those stores,” Vaughn-Payne said.
Another attempt to serve Lansing’s food desert, a westside farmers market, enjoyed limited success in a two-year run, the first year at Ferris Park, the second year in the parking lot at First Presbyterian Church, but attendance was thin.
Urban geography is part of the problem.
The other farmers markets in the community, like the eastside’s Allen Street Market, are walkable for most people in the neighborhood, but the area served by the Northwest Initiative is large, encompassing parts of Lansing Township, downtown Lansing and the north and west sides.
The NorthWest Initiative’s service area sprawls southward from Sheridan Road, along the Ingham-Clinton county line, to the Grand River, bordered by Waverly Road to the east and Cedar/Larch to the west.
“If they don’t have a car, it’s hard to get to us and haul children and fruit and vegetables around,” Vaughn-Payne said.
There was another problem: The farmers market mainly drew middle-income people who aren’t the programs’ primary targets.
“We wanted to see people in our food deserts who are SNAP eligible to get to the market,” Vaughn-Payne said.
The staff looked for other ways to tackle the problem and seized upon the mobile truck idea.
“We’ll go into these lower income housing complexes and neighborhoods and set up shop, in a school, a parking lot, a church or community center,” Vaughn-Payne said.
After an unsuccessful try two years ago, the mobile market snagged a $30,000 grant from Ingham County’s Urban Redevelopment program in 2017. Staffers combed on-line used vehicle sites and found a 2013 Ford Starcraft Shuttle, formerly used to transport seniors in New York.
Landlords, local clergy and city officials have already agreed to devote parking lot space where the truck could stop and deploy its payload of peas.
The mobile market will include cooking demonstrations and recipes, but it will be a market first and an educational tool second. Keeping in mind the primary goal of bringing produce to underserved areas, the truck will offer out-of-season as well as fresh inseason produce.
Otherwise, the offerings would be pretty slim at times. In late May, for example, it would pretty much be a radish wagon.
“We get it that farmers markets are generally just for farmers who are growing stuff right here,” Vaughn-Payne said, “but we want people to get what they want, oranges, bananas, things that aren’t grown here.”
Her staff will work with local retailers to make out-of-season items affordable.
Routes will be worked out with the help of input from the neighborhoods the truck will visit. In addition to its regular rounds, the mobile market might drop in on city and county parks for weekend events.
Vaughn-Payne is feeling the spring heat and eager to get the truck on the streets, but she’s getting sticker shock from estimates to modify the van along the lines of similar projects in other cities. A May fundraiser raised about $3,000, but she figures it will take another $50,000 to get the truck on the streets and hire a market manager.
Staffers are soliciting corporate sponsorships at various levels as well as private donations. The goal is to get the truck on the road by early July with a big kickoff celebration.
Note the truck also needs a jingle to play as it goes down the street.
To support the Farmers Market Project, you may send a check to Northwest Initiative, 510 W. Ottawa St., Lansing 48933 with Farmers Market Project noted in the memo field. Or you may donate online at nwlansing.org/donate/outreach. Say in the notes field it is for the Farmer Market Project.
NorthWest Initiative in cooperation with Michigan State University will hold grilled chicken lunch fundraisers from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 15 and July 13 at 510 W. Ottawa St. in the parking lot of First Presbyterian Church. A vegetarian meal is also available. Preorders may be placed. Call (517) 999-2894 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.