Potential Demand for Local Fresh Produce by Mobile Markets

Background and Overview

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has released a new research publication titled “Potential Demand for Local Fresh Produce by Mobile Markets.” The publication reviews intensive case study analysis conducted by University of Wisconsin faculty, Lydia Zepeda and Alice Reznickova, of six pilot project sites funded by AMS grants. It attempts to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the mobile market business model in enhancing cost effective community access to fresh produce. AMS regularly receives requests for information on the operation and feasibility of mobile markets, as numerous communities have begun to experiment with neighborhood delivery of fresh food as a possible solution to their existing food access issues.  For residents of communities with low food access, mobile markets that make regular neighborhood stops can serve as an important gateway to expanding consumer access to healthier food choices. Many proponents of mobile markets also claim that this model of food distribution may provide an essential source of additional income for local growers by allowing them to supply a non-traditional, and often inaccessible, customer base.

There is a growing desire for credible and accurate information about the potential role that mobile markets can play in local food distribution. To fill this information gap, AMS entered into a cooperative research agreement with the Department of Consumer Science at the University of Wisconsin to determine how well mobile markets were satisfying expectations for improving food access and farmer income. The study looked at a geographically diverse set of mobile market projects funded by the USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP). Researchers focused on six communities in the United States: Adrian, MI; Baltimore, MD; Concord, CA; New Orleans, LA; Santa Fe, NM; and Worcester, MA. They investigated whether or not these mobile markets generated increased produce sales by growers, and improved access to fresh produce among members of food-insecure households. In total, 59 interviews were conducted with 26 different organizations, 27 farmers and a 4-H instructor.  

The interviews were professionally transcribed and coded to address the following questions:

  • Who utilizes the mobile market/pantry?
  • Where is the food sourced?
  • How are the prices of local produce, purchased by the market, determined?
  • If sold, what price did consumers pay?
  • If given away, which set of criteria were used to determine how food was distributed?
  • To what extent or under what circumstances do mobile markets/pantries increase farmers’ sales?
  • To what extent or under what circumstances do mobile markets/pantries increase consumers’ access to fresh produce?

Key Takeaways

These 59 interviews, at six sites, illustrate several different attempted models for improving fresh food access through targeted neighborhood distribution.  The researchers found that many aspects of the business and organizational structure differed across the mobile markets. However, the mobile markets that were successfully improving fresh food access, while also remaining financially viable, shared a reliance on:

  • Strategic and innovative partnerships;
  • Creative, holistic approaches to problem-solving;
  • Broad-based community engagement, and;
  • Strong stakeholder investment (time, labor, financial).

Combining some or all of these activities has allowed the more successful mobile markets to establish themselves as important contributors to fresh food access and offer non-traditional patrons additional market access to farm vendors.

Strategic and Innovative Partnerships: Finding Shared Goals 

Margins are typically slim in the fresh produce industry. This is especially true with mobile markets, since they often wish to sell produce at a lower price point than most retail outlets to make the prices affordable and attractive to the customers they serve. To achieve this goal while remaining financially solvent, the more successful mobile markets have often seen fit to establish partnerships with organizations that have similar core missions, but different capabilities and resources. Some markets have found success partnering with established non-profit organizations that have strong community connections, and/or a long list of willing volunteers. Others have achieved success by reaching out to hospitals or businesses that can provide some discretionary funding, and have a desire to invest in healthy food or food access programs. One example of the latter partnership is the Veggie Mobile project.  

Located in Adrian, MI, the Veggie Mobile was established in 2013, through a collaboration between ProMedica Bixby Hospital (ProMedica), the Lenawee Health Network (LHN), and local farmers markets and market vendors. Adrian is a very rural community and has the highest poverty levels of the sites included in the study. Although the city is surrounded by farmland, there are few direct produce sale opportunities and local producers in the area were actively seeking additional revenue streams and market opportunities.  FMPP funding was initially used to pay for the truck and driver, but when the grant ended, the Veggie Mobile needed to find another source of funding.  ProMedica was able to step in and provide sustained funding. After a “Community Health Needs Assessment”, completed by ProMedica, found that there was a great need in the community for access to healthy foods, LHN decided to make healthy food access one of their key initiatives.  These organizations shared a commitment to similar missions, which allowed for a very successful partnership. Though their specific objectives and agendas may have been different, they were all  interested in finding a way to get more fresh produce into the hands of local community members and have worked together to achieve that goal.

Santa Fe, NM, also features instances of innovative partnerships between mobile markets and likeminded institutions. One specific example of this is with MoGro, a mobile market and non-profit organization run out of the Santa Fe Community Foundation, and Skarsgard Farms, a for-profit home-delivery CSA farm that sells organic products in Northern New Mexico and El Paso, TX. After experiencing some obstacles related to delivery and refrigeration when starting their mobile market, MoGro discovered that a partnership with Skarsgard Farms would be a much more cost-effective business model. Since Skarsgard Farms already had a home delivery service, MoGro could utilize their trucks, warehouse space and employees, and purchase fresh produce directly from the farm. This partnership reduced MoGro’s expenses by 60 percent.

Creative, Holistic Approaches to Problem-Solving: Diversifying Program Offerings and Pricing

The success of a mobile market depends on more than just providing fresh produce to a community. Communities also need to have the skills, time, and resources necessary for purchasing and preparing the fresh fruits and vegetables available for sale at mobile markets. For the communities evaluated in this report, the researchers found that a lack of basic cooking skills and budgeting were major obstacles to transforming dietary habits.  In recognition of these barriers, Fresh Approach, a non-profit organization located in Concord, CA, has developed numerous programs to address all issues related to food access and healthy eating. Fresh Approach operates an FMPP funded mobile market, Freshest Cargo, to make healthy, local food more accessible to Bay area communities. They also operate VeggieRx, a behavior change program they developed that includes nutrition education, cooking demonstrations and provides vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables to eligible families that can be spent at the local farmers market. In addition, Fresh Approach conducts Healthy Food/Healthy You nutrition classes; and established a Market Match program that provides incentives to eligible customers at local farmers markets to supplement the costs of fresh products.

Pricing is often a difficult process for mobile markets. They want to provide access to affordable fresh produce, but they also need to recover their cost of operation. To overcome perceived price barriers, the more successful mobile markets usually accept government nutrition assistance benefits [Women, Infant and Children (WIC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), etc.] and/or partner with non-profits that offer matching funds or financial incentives. Civic Works, a mobile market in Baltimore, MD, accepts all forms of government nutrition assistance and offers a “double dollars” program, which provides coupons that double the amount recipients are able to spend with their government nutrition assistance benefits. These two payment methods made up 50 percent of their sales in 2014.

Broad-Based Community Engagement: Addressing the Communities You Are Serving

The people who best know how to serve the communities are people living within the communities. It is important to take their needs and wants into account when trying to develop a program to serve them. A top down approach, where an organization comes in and provides what they think a community needs, will likely miss the mark because each community has different demographics and varying needs. Researchers shared the following observation: if you want to help a community, give them what they want, not what you think they need. They will be more invested in the successful outcome of the work because they had a part in developing it.

In Worcester, MA, the Regional Environmental Council (REC) mobile market chooses sites based on a community’s application. The staff is hired from the neighborhoods REC is trying to serve and ethnic produce, that represents the cultural diversity of the communities, is sold at the market. Through these actions, REC works to ensure that the community members are invested in the success of the market and feel as if their specific needs are being met. This makes the mobile market seem less like charity and more like a business providing a product to meet the needs of the community. In Baltimore, MD, Civic Works uses their mobile market to engage directly with the community and provides them with education to assist individuals who are unfamiliar with some of the products and growing methods. Civic Works operates 8-9 months a year, 4 days a week. They also have 20 different stops and make regular home deliveries in order to meet the diverse needs and schedules of the community.

An additional consideration is that the residents of communities that mobile markets are trying to serve typically have limited time at their disposal to purchase and prepare food. Even if they have access to transportation, they often lack the time to purchase groceries from multiple outlets. To accommodate the needs of neighborhood residents, some of the more successful mobile markets have put in refrigeration (through retrofitting their vehicle with coolers or renting refrigerated vehicles) to provide milk, eggs and meat. Others offer grains, cereal and basic household staples. These mobile markets are hoping to make the shopping experience more convenient for neighborhood residents, by offering all the products needed to make a complete meal and, thereby, increasing the likelihood of residents coming to the mobile market. The REC mobile market in Worcester, MA, for example, offers fresh produce and, following the advice of a business consultant, offers staples like bread, cheese, tea, and honey. In Adrian, MI, the Veggie Mobile offers more than 30 types of fruits and vegetables and willingly breaks apart packages to sell the exact quantities needed by an individual. On one occasion, the market sold a single clove of garlic! This is not just a convenience issue, but also shows that these mobile markets tailor their markets to the needs and budgets of the communities they serve. This commitment to customer service is one way that mobile markets can separate themselves and compete in this industry.   

Strong Stakeholder Investment: Local Champions

Beyond partnerships, shared resources and innovative problem solving the interviews also highlighted the importance of recruiting local "champions," from the neighborhoods being served, who are able to represent the community and help maintain/grow existing networks. Not only do local champions serve as an entry point into a community, they can also be very effective in serving as friendly liaisons between the community and market personnel, and help build trust and support for the mobile market’s activities. The words of a trusted community member can serve as one of the best sources of marketing and can greatly improve the number of people willing to come and shop at the market. They also understand the needs of the community and can assist with choosing site locations, product offerings and market days/hours.

For example, the MoGro mobile market in Santa Fe, NM, only agrees to provide services to sites that have a “local champion” or community member that can help to distribute information, recruit customers and assist customers on-site.  In such an ethnically diverse community, these “champions” are able to help the market address potential language and cultural barriers and provide access to community members, who might not otherwise feel comfortable patronizing the market.

Full Report

View the full report and case studies (pdf)

If you have any questions, please contact:

Samantha Schaffstall
Management and Program Analyst
USDA AMS Marketing Services Division


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