When the Green Machine Mobile Food Market rolled up to University Place a year ago – the market being housed inside a lime green retired MATA bus – the first customer was a 103-year-old former school teacher in a wheelchair.
“She hadn’t been to the store in many months,” said Kenneth Reardon, a University of Memphis professor and director of the graduate program of City and Regional Planning, which has been involved with Green Machine from its inception. “We knew that was a good omen.”
The former MATA bus now known as Green Machine Mobile Food Market has been rolling through the city for the past year, serving as a mobile grocery store for underserved communities.
Since July 2013, Reardon said the Green Machine Mobile Food Market has made more than 600 stops – many of them at high-rises where the elderly and disabled live – and been part of more than a dozen community events and had more than 15,000 customers.
Deacon Champion, who is director of the Green Machine program, says when the bus first started coming into low-income Memphis neighborhoods that did not have full-service grocery stores the residents were apprehensive.
“They were used to people coming in selling fruits and vegetables at real high prices,” Champion said.
The Green Machine is now well known, in part because of the 80-foot mural on the side of the former Memphis Area Transit Authority bus. The mural blends the message of healthy eating – with pictures of fruits and vegetables – and Memphis’ musical heritage (including a picture of a saxophonist).
“At first it was something strange coming down the street – a big lime green bus,” Champion said. “Now people get a warm feeling.”
When the Green Machine launched a year ago, just seven out of 77 low-income census tracks in and around Downtown Memphis had access to a full-service grocery store.
Anne Stubblefield, vice chairman of the board of directors at Saint Patrick Community Outreach Inc., said they knew the area was a virtual desert in terms of fresh fruits and vegetables. Champion, 63, grew up in South Memphis and says the disparity was neither new nor surprising.
“You have to look at it through the eyes of the big grocery stores,” Champion said. “Their bottom line is profit and not helping people in low-income areas. For (their investors) they’re doing right by keeping stores in areas where people spend the money.”
Stubblefield credits Reardon with much of the fundraising for Green Machine, adding, “Ken was a powerhouse in getting the money.”
The lead supporter, Reardon said, is the Assisi Foundation of Memphis, which has pledged $150,000 ($50,000 per year) for three years. Other notable supporters and the total amount committed to Green Machine:
The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis ($53,000); Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. ($25,000); Bank of America and ServiceMaster ($15,000 each); anonymous donors ($12,000); FedEx ($10,000); Travel Leaders ($7,500); and the Memphis Grizzlies ($3,000).
MATA rents the bus to Saint Patrick Community Outreach for $1 a year. Retrofitting the retired bus might have cost upward of $75,000. But with help from visiting U of M professor Antonio Recite, Reardon said they were able to do it for about $21,000 including the electronic checkouts inside the bus and the air-conditioning.
“It looks like a single aisle at a Whole Foods or a Fresh Market,” Reardon said of the Green Machine Mobile Food Market.
Prices vary, with some items sold at or near wholesale prices, Champion said, and others at market rate. Customers also can get recipes and learn more about healthy eating and active lifestyles.
Reardon says a children’s book is in the works called “Mattie’s Great Ride.” In the book, young children learn the story of the retired city bus, Mattie, and how she came to her valuable “second life” serving the city as the Green Machine. An animated video is planned as well.
Any doubts about whether the Green Machine could make a difference are gone, especially with other cities, including Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis, showing interest in starting a similar program. Even Nashville officials are coming to town to learn about the Green Machine.
“We’re trying to break the mold and show people there’s a better way to live,” Champion said.