Providing an Oasis in a Food Desert

Activist Tanya Fields' innovative mobile market will bring healthy foods to the South Bronx.

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The reasons that full-service grocery stores exist only in specific spots are varied and complex. Compiling a tract of land on which a large supermarket can be built is often more expensive inside a city than simply buying a large cornfield in the suburbs, Gallagher said. City zoning and building-permit processes often complicate the work of trying to build a store inside an established city neighborhood and make it more expensive. And each grocery-store chain has its own criteria -- some combination of available skilled labor, neighborhood population, income and average food spending, theft rates and insurance costs -- that it uses to determine where to put up its stores, she said. 

Fields is trying to bring an alternative to her community.

Fields had worked a short time with a for-profit consulting business run by the South Bronx's most famous -- and recently embattled -- urban environmental crusader, Majora Carter.

With Carter, Fields attended her share of conferences filled with people concerned about the plight of people living in food deserts. But most of their solutions involved a collection of mostly white activists delivering food, setting up and stocking food pantries and delivering temporary aid to poor black and Latino residents who would have to apply, line up and accept whatever was offered. They were what Fields describes as noble but unstintingly temporary, paternalistic solutions.

"I don't mean to disrespect anything that anyone has done to truly try to help my community," said Fields. "But it seems like the public health messages in our community constantly talk about what we are doing wrong. As I see it, my job and my goal is not to pathologize people but to provide solutions."

First Fields tried to establish a weekly farmers market. It never caught on.

Fields then hit the Internet. It wasn't long before she came across mobile food markets operated by nonprofits in Louisiana and Illinois. The idea seemed like an end run around several problems.

A mobile food store wouldn't require construction, land acquisition or the political wrangling it often takes to secure an incentive package. It would also allow customers to buy what they want, in a convenient location at regular intervals, Fields said. And area residents could voice interest in specific fruits and vegetables and buy them without having to depend on the whims of donors or farmers.

But the mobile food market was one of those ideas easier conceived than executed.

Fields and a small team at the BLK Projek spent a little more than a year applying for grants, researching options and talking to area farmers and food producers. Fields found a group of farmers who owned a fleet of buses, and they were willing to lend one to her cause and sell her food that she could resell in the South Bronx.