University of Memphis Magazine
A Fresh Start
Fall 12 Features


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A Fresh Start

Low-income residents of the Mid-South’s “food deserts” often have trouble obtaining fresh,affordable food, resulting in a recent public outcry for a solution. A project “driven” by the University of Memphis is set to address the problem.

By Sara Hoover

Half a century ago, South Memphians got their fruit and vegetables from the "Market Man," a neighbor who pushed a cart of his hand-grown produce down the streets and yelled, "Market, market." Women came out of their houses to buy fresh veggies — mainly greens, squash and tomatoes.

While the Green Machine Mobile Food Market is not a reinvention of the Market Man, it has the same idea: to bring fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables to South Memphis neighborhoods that otherwise don’t have access. The Green Machine is a farmer’s market on wheels, making weekly stops with a converted Memphis Area Transit Authority bus.

The idea began at a community meeting last July, after the graduate program in city and regional planning in the School of Urban Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Memphis and the Vance Avenue Collaborative received a grant for neighborhood revitalization. They decided to combat food deserts, low-income areas that lack access to healthy and affordable food.

Recent grad Aury Kangelos (left) and Dr. Ken Reardon, director of the graduate program in the U of M’s city and regional planning department, have spearheaded a project that will deliver fresh meal options to Memphis’ food deserts.
Recent grad Aury Kangelos (left) and Dr. Ken Reardon, director of the graduate program in the U of M’s city and regional planning department, have spearheaded a project that will deliver fresh meal options to Memphis’ “food deserts.”

Areas in South Memphis are considered food deserts, according to USDA requirements. They have no full-service supermarket or farmer’s market. Tennessee ranks 47th in overall health, and four of the top 10 causes of death within the state are food-related diseases.

South Memphis resident Marva Jones is eager for the bus. "It will enhance the community because of the natural selections provided and also the innovative way of providing food to the community, specifically the elderly who lack transportation," she says.

U of M graduate students and alums have been involved since the beginning. Two classes surveyed residents and held focus groups.

Aury Kangelos (MCRP ’12) created an extensive business development plan that is still being used to develop the Green Machine. The Union City, Tenn., native was also responsible for best practice research and many project aspects.

"From spending time in South Memphis, you see that food access is not universal," says Kangelos, who started on the project as a graduate assistant. "This bus will provide a cheap and effective way to make a significant change in the lives of many elderly and low-income people by providing them access to inexpensive and nutritious food choices. You’d be surprised by how many people don’t have access to a grocery store because of a lack of transportation."

Kangelos has worked to involve the Memphis Grizzlies organization, which plans to provide advertising on the bus to help offset costs. It is possible, too, various Grizzly players will take part in public service announcements to promote healthy living.

The team originally implemented a community garden, which was successful, but served small numbers. A larger scale project was needed to reach those bound by lack of transportation, child/elderly care or physical disabilities.

Community resident Cathy Winterburn learned about Chicago’s Fresh Moves, a mobile produce market, and thought it sounded like the solution.

U of M graduate students did GIS mapping. The result: the food was in one area and the people who needed it were in another.

The team identified five routes with 15 sites. The bus will run weekdays and have three stops a day.

MATA is leasing the bus for $1 for one year. Architects Looney Ricks Kiss donated their services to retrofit the interior. Advertising agency archer>malmo created the branding and public awareness campaign
pro bono.

A unique facet is the educational component. One quarter of the bus’ square footage is devoted to educational pamphlets and model menus — particularly for people who have pre-existing health conditions. The University of Tennessee nursing program and Mid-South Food Bank have developed the materials.

The bus provided job creation. Three full-time positions were developed: a driver and two sales/nutrition educators. St. Patrick’s Community Outreach, a member of the Vance Avenue Collaborative, will supervise the staff and manage the bus operation.

Easy Way will be the supplier.

"It’s a third-generation family-owned business in Memphis that has, in good times and bad times, offered high-quality fruits and vegetables in a variety of neighborhoods, including low-income and working-class," says Dr. Ken Reardon, director of the graduate program in city and regional planning.

Eighty-five percent of Easy Way’s seasonal supply is local, within 200 miles of Memphis.

Both parties are open to Easy Way putting a brick-and-mortar store at busy bus locations, so the Green Machine can find new under-served routes.

The Green Machine will "go green" in the future.

"Once we’re generating some income, we’d like to talk to our funders about redirecting a portion from general operations for energy enhancements," says Reardon.

The bus is reducing its carbon footprint in other ways. The city has agreed to help with a MLGW hookup service so the bus won’t run while stopped. Bringing food to people eliminates multiple cars on the road. Since the food supply is local, the shipping is much less than if it came across the country or globe.

The bus will cost $250,000 a year initially and by the fourth year will hopefully be self-sufficient.

The launch is planned for the fall.

If successful, the long-term goals would be expansion and replication. First, expand into other cities in Shelby County and parts of Arkansas and Mississippi, creating a regional network. The U of M, as a public university, would make the project materials available to other universities free of charge for replication.

"You only get lucky every so often in life and this is one of those times where I’ve actually been blessed to work on something like this," Kangelos says. "A lot of people go their whole careers hoping for a project like this to come along and here I am getting to work on something like this. It’s a blessing is all you can say."

Organizations wanting to help fund the bus can contact Reardon at 901/678-2610.

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Last Updated: 8/22/12