Thanks to $75K grant, startup to bring food to underserved in Pittsburgh

Dec 18, 2014

Guy Wathen, Trib Total Media

Photo Credit: Guy Wathen, Trib Total Media

Thanks to a $75,000 grant from Neighborhood Allies, this trio plans to bring their mobile market and food truck to low-income areas in Pittsburgh this spring.

Homewood Children’s Village started filling the backpacks of children at two elementary schools every Friday last year.

The backpacks weren’t full of school supplies. They contained food, said Kristi Burry, director of the nonprofit’s Office of Child and Community Health.

Last year, 120 students at Faison K-5 in Homewood and Lincoln PreK-5 in Larimer in Pittsburgh Public Schools belonged to the Power Packs program. This school year, 247 students, including some at Westinghouse High School, are expected to participate.

Poverty and the lack of access to a full-service grocery store in the Homewood area spur the need, Burry said.

“Kids are hungry. And I think people don’t realize it’s as big of an issue as it really is,” she said.

A startup company, Farm Truck Foods, plans to address the problem in Homewood and several high-poverty areas though its mobile market program, which will include a truck selling fresh items directly to residents.

Mobile markets are becoming more common in cities across the nation as a means of making healthy foods available in low-income areas, but Farm Truck Foods would be the first in Pittsburgh, local experts said.

Using a $75,000 grant it received from the community development nonprofit Neighborhood Allies, Farm Truck Foods will buy a truck and retrofit it with refrigerators and other equipment. It will sell affordable and fresh produce, grains, dairy products, meat and some pre-packaged foods in a number of communities, such as Homewood, the Hill District, Larimer, Wilkinsburg and Millvale, in the spring as part of a pilot project, said Beaver resident Meredith Neel, 26, executive director of Farm Truck Foods.

“We’ll have setup locations in all the communities so the communities will know where we’ll be,” she said.

Shoppers will be able to buy items with cash, credit cards, debit cards and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly the food stamp program.

Farm Truck Foods is working with community organizations, including Homewood Children’s Village, to determine the needs of residents, Neel said.

“It’s community specific. Not all communities need the same thing,” she said.

Neel co-founded Farm Truck Foods in 2013 with Landon DePaulo, 30, of Arlington and Michelle Lagree, 26, of Robinson, but they needed the Neighborhood Allies grant to get their business off the ground and a truck on the street.

Mobile markets tend to sell healthy products only, leading to better consumer choices, said Tamara Dubowitz, senior policy researcher in the Oakland office of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Rand Corp. and leader of a five-year study of grocery store access in Homewood and the Hill District.

Last year, a Shop ‘n Save opened on Centre Avenue in the Hill District, becoming the neighborhood’s first grocery store in more than 30 years.

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne plans to start a mobile market, tentatively called Curbside Market, in the summer, said Joshua Murphy, director of sourcing and distribution programs.

It will use part of a $500,000 grant it received from the Hillman Foundation, but the mobile market will need more funding and two years of operation before the food bank can determine if it is sustainable, Murphy said.

“This model is different because it’s about food access … and so we think that we can create the model in such a way that the purchase of that food would cover some of the cost,” he said.

There are communities where there is a demand for healthy food, but not enough to make a full-service grocery store viable, so mobile markets are a better fit, said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a South Side-based nonprofit that fights poverty and hunger. Still, there are disadvantages, he said.

“If people need to do their grocery shopping on Thursday and the store is only in your neighborhood on Tuesday, and you don’t have money on Tuesday, you’re going to shop on Thursday at whatever you can get to,” Regal said.

Farm Truck Foods is working with Just Harvest, the food bank and other organizations to incorporate a public education component that will include literature on nutrition and healthy cooking.

A locator device will be affixed to the truck to allow people to track it with a global positioning system. The truck’s monthly schedule will be posted on social media and the web, and on printed literature that community groups will distribute to residents, Neel said.

The business will buy food from local farmers shortly before reselling it, so its retail costs will be lower than those of traditional grocery stores because no warehouse or delivery companies are involved, she said.

The truck initially will run two or three days a week, but Farm Truck Foods hopes to increase the frequency and expand into other communities, Neel said.

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