Delivering Healthy Eats to Nashville Neighborhoods
Alexandra, Nashville Mobile Market
Founded by students, Nashville Mobile Market is a non-profit social enterprise venture that aims to increase access to healthy foods in Nashville communities. These communities have been identified as food deserts, given a prevalence of fast food restaurants, liquor stores and convenience stores but a lack of supermarkets and corner stores that provide healthy, fresh grocery options.
Why this Student Spoke Out
Alexandra is passionate about food access issues and other public health prevention initiatives, as well as the use of social enterprise as a tool to further community development.
1. What motivated you to start Nashville Mobile Market?
Nashville Mobile Market was created out of a motivation and passion for improving access to healthy foods and for serving communities affected most by issues of food access; we continue to be motivated by pursuing long-term, sustainable changes in the overall health of these communities.
2. Where did the idea for the project come from?
The idea for Nashville Mobile Market began at Shade Tree Clinic, a free clinic operated by Vanderbilt medical students. Our founder, Ravdra Arnoldi Patel, worked at Shade Tree extensively his first year in medical school and was faced time and again with obese diabetic patients who, when questioned on their diet, would explain that they ate fast food three times a day most days, because it was the cheapest, most available option.
Through conversations with patients struggling with food access and others working to improve the availability of healthy food in Nashville, the idea of a mobile grocery store was conceived. A stand-alone, traditional grocery store did not seem to be in the near future of any of these neighborhoods; a mobile grocery store seemed to be the ideal interim solution to bring fresh, affordable food as close to those who need it as possible.
3. What issues in your community did you identify as the most critical?
The long-term, chronic health conditions originating with poor diets were identified as the most critical issue, with their high incidence and large lifestyle impact. America's obesity epidemic has received a good deal of attention over the past few years, and we've seen that and all associated problems firsthand in numerous neighborhoods in Nashville. Digging deeper, poor nutrition stemming from highly limited access to healthy food seemed to be a major systemic problem, one we knew we could tackle. After speaking with community leaders and residents of several neighborhoods deemed "food deserts," four main barriers to healthy food were identified: cost of the food, transportation, time, and childcare. We've worked to mitigate the effect of these barriers as major issues that limit the access to healthy food and availability of healthy options to members of Nashville communities, hoping to ultimately impact the most devastating issue of long-term health problems.
4. Explain how Nashville Mobile Market works.
Nashville Mobile Market operates out of a 28-foot trailer, set up as a grocery store aisle. We offer a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, certain lean meat and dairy products, and other staple items - whole wheat bread and pasta, canned vegetables, some spices, rice, beans, etc. We strive to cater to what our customers want to see on the truck and have great flexibility in our product mix, while always keeping the health of our products at the forefront of our decisions. The Mobile Market is driven around to each stop location, where it remains for several hours and is open for business. We currently operate Thursdays through Sundays and are working in three communities: Edgehill, East Nashville, and North Nashville. We have one full-time employee, two employed drivers, and rely on volunteer assistance for the remainder of our operations. We have a customer rewards system, issue frequent coupons, and do our best to keep prices as low as possible; we've seen all too often that proximity does not equate with access if our customers still don't have the money to shop with us, and maximum access while remaining a profitable business is our primary operational goal. We are able to take cash, credit cards, and EBT (food stamps), trying to be as accessible to our customers as possible.
5. Where does NMM get their produce and foods?
We purchase all of our produce through Mid-South Produce, a produce supplier located close to the Mobile Market; we are able to have one or two deliveries from Mid-South a week, depending on the volume of sales on Thursday and Friday. We purchase the rest of our items from H.G. Hill, a local grocery store supplied by Associated Wholesale Grocers; we make one pick-up a week from H.G. Hill.
6. How do you identify which communities are in the most need?
We have based our decisions thus far off of focusing on those communities in the downtown Nashville area that have been identified as food deserts; these designations have occurred through mapping of current grocery store locations. From there, we've established partnerships with existing community organizations and public housing centers. A number of factors must be considered in selecting a Mobile Market stop location: proximity to potential customers who have need of and hopefully will utilize Nashville Mobile Market is the primary concern, but a stop must also fit the spatial needs of the trailer and meet certain safety qualifications. Our current locations are situated so that we serve as many people as possible, have community partners to develop long-lasting relationships with, and fill a gap in grocery store locations.
7. How many families have you reached?
Unfortunately we don't have a comprehensive list of all our customers, but we've been averaging around 250 customers a weekend. Given that we do have a lot of faithful customers that we see week after week, the best I can give you is a weekly number of reaching around 250 families. I apologize that we don't have any more concrete figures at the moment, but I'd be concerned with the accuracy of any estimate beyond that.
8. Do you have any plans for expansion? If so, what are they?
We are planning to expand. We hope to continue building our operations here in Nashville and adjusting our operations as grocery stores open and close around the city. As support builds, we're able to increase our stop days and times, reaching more and more people in food desert communities. We've also been in communication with like-minded people in several other cities, who are workign to begin a similar operation there. We've been able to offer some advice and are glad to speak with anyone about our experience thus far, but we also hope to eventually spread beyond Nashville and have Mobile Markets in other cities. We have no set timeline for expansion on this scale yet, but are working to establish the national organization, as a starting point for other markets, within the next year.
9. What would you say to other young people who are motivated to make change in their communities?
I'd encourage them to dream big and creatively! I've had the privilege of watching several businesses pop up in Nashville over the past few years that are driving change around the city in a huge variety of capacities - and entrepreneurs just scratch the surface of movers and changers in communities. As young people, we're able to bring such energy and passion to issues, and I'd tell others to utilize that energy to draw others in to the issue and truly make a deep impact. Nothing we've done would have been possible without months of building community relationships, and I'd emphasize that any desired change won't be possible without a relational foundation; make sure that the change you're wanting to see is in line with the needs of the community you're striving to serve, and relentlessly pursue filling that need! You don't need the perfect project or fix-all solution - pursuit of that could drive you crazy. Identify a variety of ways to implement change, however small some of those ways may seem. We have incredible opportunities every day to meet the needs of those around us, and I'd tell other young people that they're in for an exciting, challenging, and rewarding ride!
Alexandra completed her undergraduate studies at Vanderbilt University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Health and Economics.