Mobile Farmers Market: Oasis in a Food Desert

Mobile Farmers Market: Oasis in a Food Desert

Name: Garth Woodruff
Title: Assistant Professor of Horticulture & Landscape Design; Director, Agriculture Programs
Interviewed by Scott Moncrieff


How long have you been teaching at Andrews?
Since the fall of 2011.

Did you have your master's degree when you came here?
I was working on it. I worked for almost 20 years before that; my wife and I had a landscaping and design build firm on the East Coast. Now I’m working on my PhD, a couple of years left in the Leadership program with an emphasis in environmental design and sustainability.

You're a busy guy. And you have kids?
I've got a 19-year-old and a 15-year-old.

Your wife is a landscape architect in the area?
She has a studio in St. Joseph called Rootbound. We worked together for 20 years and we didn't really want to give that up, so she hung her shingle up and has been doing really well. She takes some of my students as interns and they help out with projects that are bigger than I can handle on my plate, and she justifies it as some of her gratis work, and then some of the projects that people ask us to do that are beyond what we can do here at the university, I might send them her way. It's been working out well.

Tell me about the Mobile Farmers’ Market.
We’re a small department and we have to wear a lot of hats. When I came they wanted me to oversee the University gardens. I'm kind of entrepreneurial and I shift things around, and we turned it into an organic garden, the Student Gardens. In the meantime, I was making some connections with people in St. Joseph, and through some friends of friends the word got around that we had the Student Gardens. The Be Healthy Berrien (BHB) conglomerate had an idea, but they needed help to turn it into a reality, so they reached out to a couple of farms in the area and asked us to put a proposal together. It was probably in the spring of 2014 or the fall of 2013, so I’d been here for a year or two ramping up, changing the Student Gardens, and they took our proposal and funded us through grants and we launched this Mobile Farmers Market (MFM).

We have seven “food deserts” in the county—a place where food accessibility is difficult. It could be rural areas, far from a grocery store. Income is a big indicator. Sometimes elderly communities that may not have stores or restaurants that are easily accessible for someone with a handicap or walkers or something like that, so accessibility gets broken up in different ways and the USDA defines it in layers. BHB is a county-wide partnership of the Berrien County Health Department, Lakeland Health, Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, United Way of Southwest Michigan, and the YMCA. It's basically just a group of like-minded individuals saying “Hey, how can we improve the health habits of Berrien County?” It's surreal—Berrien County as a whole has a higher obesity rate than the average for Michigan, and our food deserts in Benton Harbor are higher than Berrien County. Almost 50 percent of our land is agriculture—fruits and vegetables, not corn that's turning into feed for cows or anything like that, but literally food. Almost 30 percent of our dollars sold out of this county is fruits and vegetables—6 or 7 percent is the average across the U.S. So how in the world can we have all this food in this great rural community and even outdoor activities like the beach, the dunes, and then these pockets in the community that are so much worse? BHB was looking at mechanisms and interactions to try to break some of these barriers and the MFM was one of these things. It's kind of still new. Not many places have MFMs. Over 70 percent of the people in Benton Harbor don't have cars or drive. We take for granted driving to Meijer’s, but some people just don't have that those opportunities, so the idea of the MFM was to set up these markets in these pockets and we'll move from pocket to pocket, creating opportunities for fresh foods, fruits and vegetables.

It took us about a year to build up, so first it was let's get food, let's get the ability to accept food stamps, which we call SNAP benefits, because that starts to break the barrier of affordability; we're coming to them, so we're breaking the barrier of mobility. And we were able to tag on things like Double Up Food Bucks—the State of Michigan and the Department of Agriculture funds this program that says if you purchase something with your SNAP benefits from a farmer's market the state will subsidize that dollar-for-dollar, so we charge them 10 bucks but they walk away with $20 worth of produce. The idea is to incentivize healthy habits.

    We've gone through a couple of iterations. The first year we bought a FedEx truck and souped it up (see a photo in Pulse), got our licensing, got the health department to approve us to do cooking classes, so we have prepared foods and stuff like that, and then over the years we've shifted it and changed it, trying to get better. We find that those who desire our products are very passionate about them and very, very appreciative, but it's a very small segment of the population. We're servicing some important needs and we're filling a very valuable category, but we're not selling enough of it to pay the electrical bills, so we've been trying to nuance that into how do we make this not quite so grant-needy, looking long-term. Again, if there was demand out there, there would be stores there and we wouldn't need to be there, so you're going into a business situation knowing that you're setting yourself up for failure.

    After playing with it for a few years we pulled back and we're considering all these ideas with the steering committee in town and we're going back and forth and BHB tells us “Take this year, do some research, find what other markets are doing, build three different business models and test them for two weeks each and we'll fund you to do that, and then tell us at the end of the year what you think is a good idea.” So that's what we did last year.

What's your new idea going forward? How are you going to tweak the system to lose less money?
We learned something from all three models we tested, but two of the models had two separate successful components that we put together. The first model was we turned the truck into a lunch truck and we went out and we made our own recipes.

Prepared food?
Yes. When we really looked at research we ended up narrowing our market from all seven food deserts to just Benton Harbor, thinking, “Hey, let's see if we can figure out something out here and then we can duplicate it.” So we narrowed our target population. There are segments, like in St. Joseph, that are affluent lunch-goers willing to pay for a decent meal, and then two miles away people are living off of peanuts, so the first model was we’ll take the prepared food and do this boutique-y high-end truck and we’ll go places like the Lakeland Hospital, like a taco truck, which is very cool right now. We had a vegetarian wrap or things that were a little bit lower fat, bottled waters to drink, and it was super successful. The idea was to generate income at the lunch stop and then use the same talent and the same truck and maybe even some of the same products and then go to service stops in the afternoon or evenings where we wouldn't sell as much, and we might have some kind of deficit, but it would be balanced out by what we did at lunchtime.

In the third model we pulled in a sociologist who educated us about our demographics. We learned about how poverty is on a scale. It's not like you have food stamps, and therefore you’re broke and you have no money. It still falls on a scale. At the bottom, there's people who are couch-surfing or pushing a cart around town, and at the top end of poverty people still might be on food stamps, but it can be someone who goes to work every single day at a fast food restaurant but is working at minimum wage, or it's a single mom with three kids, or they didn't come from an educational background that affords them a better paying job. They're working, they've got a home, they're invested, they're trying to get their kids to a better place in life, they're engaged in the community. They just don't make enough money to be able to move out to the suburbs. This is our market. We can't target the couch surfer who doesn't have a refrigerator. Vegetables are going to do him no good. He needs other help from other places before he can get to a point where our services can be beneficial. Our target market understands what a healthy lifestyle means, they have a refrigerator, they have the ability to cook, they've got young people in their home. Sociologists call this the “Alice” population. When we set our food truck in “Alice” areas it was much more successful in food stamp use, the use of double-up food bucks, things like that. Maybe they still don't have vehicles but there's a bus system, so we can locate ourselves along bus routes or close to where benefits are being given. When we put ourselves next to things like soup kitchens it's a demographic that’s coming for a free meal, not a paid meal. It's more the couch-surfer, versus the one who is just needing to pick up some groceries and can't drive in all the way to Martin’s.

How do you find the time to do this?
I've been lucky to have a very good support system.

So you're not on the truck every day?
No, no, no. I hire very bright people. Last year the MFM director was from Western Michigan, a graduate student finishing up her master’s degree. I think the other two students were Andrews dietetics students, and I had a Public Health Master’s intern. Every time I pull students through here they have a great experience and they leave here with an amazing resume and then they go off and get fantastic jobs. I've had three summers of building talent and watching them leave, and I just keep my fingers crossed that it's going to happen again this summer.

I’ve heard that you are involved in sailing.
I've raced sailboats since I was a young guy. I'm from Annapolis, Maryland, and I was on a handful of cruises on the East Coast, did quite a bit of ocean sailing—the Atlantic and the Pacific Crossing type of thing—and after a number of years I was like “I've got enough days and hours that I could probably get my Coast Guard Captain's license,” so that became one of my personal goals. I took a bunch of classes, did a bunch of testing and logged all my times all my ocean time, so now I've got Coast Guard Captain's credentials, which is what you would do if you wanted to deliver boats for people, and every now and then I'll pick one up in the summer and for three or four days make a couple of bucks, give one of my boys a new experience so they'll come along as crew, and I still actively race with the yacht club in St. Joseph. I'm on a team there, so that's my on the water time.

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