Mobile Market plans to bring grocery option to underserved neighborhoods
The city of Sioux Falls has awarded a $250,000 grant to Thrive and a coalition of partners to develop a pilot program to supply healthy food options.
SIOUX FALLS — A grocery store on wheels.
Imagine a repurposed school bus with shelves of canned food, fresh vegetables and fruits as well as other staples such as hamburger and chicken pulling into a Sioux Falls neighborhood.
That’s a potential scenario under a grant from the city of Sioux Falls that was announced Wednesday, April 26.
Sioux Falls Thrive was awarded the $250,000 grant to establish a pilot program for the Eat Well Mobile Market. The intent is to give under-served neighborhoods access to more grocery options, beyond convenience stores and gas stations.
There’s been a slow and steady migration of grocery stores out of core neighborhoods toward the edges of the city. This has created areas where access is an issue, particularly for residents without good transportation options.
“The opportunity to get healthy foods shouldn’t depend on our education, income, or where we live,” Charles Chima, public health director for the city, said at the announcement event on Wednesday. “Every member of our community deserves access to affordable and healthy foods, and that’s why this grant is so important.”
Sioux Falls Thrive will administer the grant with an advisory board of churches, agencies and businesses that have been involved in conceiving the project and apply for the grant.
The Eat Well Mobile Market isn’t a charity. The goal of the grant is to create a pilot program that is market-based and sustainable.
Michelle Erpenbach, president of Sioux Falls Thrive, said the goal is for the project to be self-sustaining within 18 months.
“This has to be a retail option,” Erpenbach said. “It can’t be a food giveaway.”
The business model is based on using reclaimed grocery items that are out of date or have been returned to warehouses for other reasons, such as damaged packaging. The items are still usable but no longer sellable by mainline grocery stores.
Those items can be obtained at a low price, which means the profit margin is higher, said Erpenbach. The money made on the reclaimed items will be used to obtain other products, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy and other staples.
“It’s a proven concept,” she said. “It’s already working in a lot of other places, including the United Kingdom and U.S. cities like Kansas City and Minneapolis.”
The partners in the project include Fair Market/Empower, First United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church, Church on the Street, Augustana Research Institute, Active Generations, Sioux Falls Food Co+op, Feeding South Dakota, and Thrive’s Food Security Action Team.
The hope is to be operating by fall, around when school starts.
The type of vehicle has yet to be determined but it needs to be more than a food truck. Rather, it’s more likely to be a refurbished bus or similar option, Erpenbach said.
The committee working on the project has identified eight “food access priority areas.” They are primarily in the north half of the city with one tract reaching south to 41st Street between Grange and Western avenues.
The first area that will be targeted centers on the neighborhoods around the intersection of Cliff Avenue and Benson Road, which is about a mile east of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport.
Exactly where the first Mobile Market will park has yet to be determined. It could be a nearby parking lot, or even in the street near apartment buildings.
But wherever the location, Erpenbach said the organizers believe it needs to have a community feel. That includes volunteers to help people feel comfortable and welcome.
“This is a place where the community has the opportunity to come together,” she said. “At some points it may seem like a block party around the vehicle.”
The Mobile Market will accept payment from the SNAP program, commonly known as food stamps. Social service agencies may also be present to help with other services.
“We envision a fun, really dignified place to do your grocery shopping,” Erpenbach said.
Neighborhood feedback will be a vital part of the program, from where to park the vehicle to what foods to stock for that area. Many of the neighborhoods have diverse populations where what’s considered healthy may not fit with traditional or preferred diets.
“One of the things we’re going to have to do in those neighborhoods is determine what does healthy food mean in this neighborhood,” Erpenbach said.
The vehicles will adjust times and places to meet the needs of the customers. A Mobile Market bus may be at one location for a couple hours in the afternoon and then another location in the evening.
“This Mobile Market will also serve as sort of an advanced scout for places that might be able to host potential permanent grocery stores,” Erpenbach said.