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VOL. 128 | NO. 75 | Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Green Machine Brings Food to Neediest Areas

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

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On a recent Wednesday afternoon, dozens of volunteers worked to paint an 80-foot mural on the side of a former Memphis Area Transit Authority bus.

A Memphis Area Transit Authority bus has been transformed into a rolling deliverer of healthy foods for the city’s neediest areas.

Students from Hollis Price Leadership Academy High School and other volunteers from the Memphis Grizzlies, St. Patrick’s Church and the University of Memphis graduate program in City and Regional Planning painted a colorful wellness-inspired mural that combines Memphis’ musical roots with fruits, vegetables and a message of healthy living.

The lime green bus, The Green Machine Mobile Food Market, will create access to healthy food for areas of Memphis that don’t have ready access to traditional supermarkets. Just seven out of 77 low-income census tracks in and around Downtown Memphis have access to a full-service supermarket, said Kenneth Reardon, professor and director of the graduate program of City and Regional Planning.

The mobile food market will begin making stops at 15 city locations beginning May 6 to sell fresh, affordable produce supplied by Easy-Way Produce Stores. More than 80 percent of the products sold on the bus will be grown within a 200-mile radius of Memphis. One-third of the mobile market will feature health and wellness education and sample food preparation ideas such as how to make a Capri salad with tomato, mozzarella, basil and olive oil.

“One of the problems is that these neighborhoods have been without good food sources for so long that people have stopped preparing these items,” Reardon said. “A lot of the younger parents have never prepared these foods.”

But that doesn’t mean people in the neighborhoods don’t want access to healthy food. In July 2011, the city invited the Vance Avenue Collaborative and the U of M graduate program in City and Regional Planning to meet with residents to identify key neighborhood challenges.

“We were expecting people to talk about crime, lack of living wage jobs, and housing, but before they got to any of those things, the overwhelming sentiment – particularly with young women with children and older women – was complete access to decent food,” Reardon said. “They asked us, can you help us get a grocery?”

While that remains a long-term goal, Reardon says the mobile food market will provide ready access to healthy foods until local stores decide to modify their offerings or retailers decide to open full-service grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods.

“This wouldn’t be needed if the market hadn’t completely failed for fresh foods in the inner city. We’d happily work ourselves out of business.”

–Kenneth Reardon
University of Memphis graduate program in City and Regional Planning

While the exterior of the bus is complete, volunteers and carpenters continue the process of retrofitting the interior of the former MATA bus to make it market ready. Antonio Raciti, a U of M visiting professor in city and regional planning, created the overall design and detailed construction plans for transforming the bus into a retail sales environment.

“The bus will be covered with shelves, and we will have a front desk with a counter and a scale,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to transform a city bus.”

Green Machine shoppers also can watch 1-minute health tips produced by Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. and WMC-TV featuring Memphis news anchor Joe Birch. The video spots will feature tips for eating well with diabetes, arthritis, obesity and other common health ailments.

“One third of the bus is educational,” Reardon said. “It’s not enough for it to be there. People have to understand the connection between the food and the health status of themselves and their kids.”

Raciti, who also helped spearhead the external mural, said he opted to get the community and nonprofit groups involved, rather than hiring a commercial company to design an external wrap for the bus. Students from Hollis Price Leadership Academy High School, who also helped paint the mural for the South Memphis Farmers Market, were excited to continue promoting healthy living, he said. Many local businesses also contributed to the effort.

“Working with our students on such an important project has been a transformative learning experience highlighting the critical role design can make in addressing human needs,” he said.

With most of the design work complete, the bus is ready to begin rolling on May 6 – with just one last step. Reardon said they continue to seek commercially licensed bus drivers to operate the Green Machine Mobile Food Market.

The mobile food market will be operated by staff hired by Saint Patrick Community Outreach in cooperation with the Vance Avenue Collaborative and the U of M graduate program in City and Regional Planning. MATA is renting the bus to Saint Patrick Community Outreach for $1 a year.

Reardon and Raciti said they hope the bus also will demonstrate vibrant urban consumer markets to the private sector.

“This wouldn’t be needed if the market hadn’t completely failed for fresh foods in the inner city,” Reardon said. “We’d happily work ourselves out of business.”

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