A Farmer’s Market On Wheels

Mobile Market carries fresh produce

Mobile Market Director Benjamin Bartley checking out a customer at the Deanwood metro Mobile Market stop.

In a city that has the highest grossing Whole Foods market in the country, there are people in the same city who do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables because they live in a “food desert,” a low-income neighborhood where residents do not have access to a large supermarket or grocery store. The Mobile Market, a farmer’s market on wheels, hopes to change this disparity.

A brightly painted, 28-foot, refurbished school bus allows the Mobile Market to deliver local produce to where the need is greatest. “Folks want good food and they are going to seek it out. I am now one of those options,” said Benjamin Bartley, the Mobile Market Director. When the program piloted in 2012, Bartley anticipated that he would have produce left over. Instead, demand was so high he had to rearrange the operation to make sure there was a convenient place to restock because some days he was out of produce before the third stop. 

The Mobile Market makes nine stops through the DC metropolitan area, including four stops east of the Anacostia River. The Mobile Market carries fresh produce at the peak of its season, in addition to farm fresh eggs, milk and meat from a network of local farmers within 80 miles of the Washington metro area.

Another feature of the Mobile Market that boosts accessibility for low-income families is the Bonus Bucks program. In addition to accepting EBT, SNAP, WIC vouchers and senior FMNP vouchers, these payment forms have been incentivized. For example, if a family spends $10 worth of EBT benefits with the Mobile Market, they get $20 worth of fruits and vegetables.

For families that may be unfamiliar with the some of the produce, onsite cooking demonstrations, samples and education are available. Juliet Harris, a nutrition educator and the Assistant Mobile Market Manager, is on hand to explain ways of incorporating fresh produce into healthy meals for the family. “I talk with people about how to grocery shop, meal plan and I do cooking demonstrations to show them different ways to make the food they may not be familiar with,” said Harris.

The community response to the Mobile Market has been overwhelmingly positive. Harris shares food knowledge and cooking stories with everyone from seniors to young children.  “One of the kids from the United Medical Center was really interested in herbs. I study herbs and I bought him an herb book. It was really nice to feed that interest,” said Harris. For the seniors, the Mobile Market brings back memories of the good old days of living in the south and having access to fresh greens and other produce. “People say I used to eat like this but stopped because of living in the city. So being able to put people back into contact with the food that they know and that is affordable and right at their door step feels good.”

The Mobile Market is the idea of founder Michael Babin, a restaurateur who took notice of the gaps in the food system and wanted to do something about it. Babin’s idea had to address the issues of farmers’ hesitance to set up in neighborhoods that could not economically support a lot of sales. "I thought that the school bus had so many wonderful connotations. It's an iconic vehicle, and it would be a cool project," said Babin. 

Much of the produce sold on the Mobile Market is from Arcadia Farm, a non-profit that operates three programs: the Mobile Market, Farm to School and the stand-alone Arcadia Farm. The Farm-to-School program visits schools twice a week teaching children about Arcadia Farm market operations, where food comes from, agriculture, and how to make a healthy meal with whatever produce may be on the bus. The stand-alone farm program provides farmer training and introduces agriculture as a viable career.

Each program contributes to expanding knowledge about the importance of food and each program compliments the Mobile Market, according to Bartley who worked out a way to turn chest freezers into refrigerators to store the food between stops. The Mobile Market, now in its second year, sold more than $43,000 worth of produce last year, with 40 percent of the transactions taking place with low-income customers. That is a huge proportion compared with traditional farmer’s markets, according to Pamela Hess, Executive Director of Arcadia Farms. “That's because we go places where low-income people are likely to be able to get to us -- in front of WIC clinics, senior wellness centers, elementary schools.”

Hess said long term plans include a second bus and the adoption of their concept by corner stores to carry fresh produce and accept EBT. “We'll help them keep the food fresh and attractive, and offer periodic visits by cooks, and recipes, and our cookbook. Then we'll move on to other neighborhoods, and repeat the process. We know people want this great food, and we know it needs to be affordable. And there are all these corner stores that could meet their needs. So we want to transition our customers to them. Everyone wins.”

2013 Mobile Market Schedule

The 2013 Mobile Market season began on May 1st and runs through October 30th. 

4:00 – 6:00pm
The Overlook at Oxon Run
3700 9th St SE, Washington, DC 20032
4:00pm – 6:00pm
Circle 7 Express
740 Kenilworth Terrace NE, Washington, DC 20019
9:00am – 11:00am
South County Center
8350 Richmond Hwy, Alexandria, VA 22309
1:00pm – 3:00pm
Children’s National Medical Center WIC Clinic
111 Michigan Ave NW, Washington, DC 20310
4:00pm – 7:00pm
LeDroit Park
Corner of 3rd and Elm Streets NW, Washington, DC 20001
3:00pm – 6:00pm
Mary’s Center
8908 Riggs Road, Adelphi, MD 20783
10:00am – 1:00pm
Deanwood Recreation Center
4800 Minnesota Ave NE, Washington, DC 20019
3:00pm – 6:00pm
National Children’s Center
3400 MLK Jr Ave SE, Washington, DC 20032


Benjamin Bartley, Mobile Market Director, benjamin@arcadiafood.org

Monica Z. Utsey is a freelance writer and President of the Southern DC Chapter of Mocha Moms, Inc.

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