In recent years, the once-lowly food truck has entered the big leagues of cuisine.
Once peddlers of quick snacks like hot dogs and falafel, food trucks now sell items like crème brulee, roast duck and Spanish tapas.
Some Kansas City entrepreneurs think these trucks have the potential to do something else – tackle food inequity.
Standing outside a big, white trailer parked at the Guinotte Manor public housing complex northeast of downtown Kansas City, Megan Mulvihill invites curious neighbors to step inside.
“Come check it out! It’s a mobile grocery store,” she says to a passerby.
Unlike some food trucks, the Rollin’ Grocer is no repainted beater. The custom-built trailer boasts air conditioning, a freezer, refrigeration, a security system and an inventory of more than 600 different items.
“I want people to think, ‘This is sexy. I need to dress up when I go to Rollin’ Grocer,’” says Natasha El-Scari, a co-owner of the business, which launched a couple of months ago.
She says Rollin’ Grocer aims to bring to places like Guinotte Manor, which lack full-service grocery stores, the same kind of high-end operation one would find at a boutique grocer.
“We wanted to have a beautiful new truck, that when you walked on you felt a sense of pride and you felt like you wanted to spend your money there,” El-Scari says.
No strings attached
Success in the business takes more than just attracting a customer’s attention, however. It also requires offering what customers want to buy.
Rollin’ Grocer’s owners say they decided not to seek the kind of grants or public funding that many food desert projects get because they didn’t want money with strings attached about what kinds of food they could sell.
Part of the plan was to provide foods that customers requested, and that’s taken Rollin’ Grocers in some unexpected directions.
“I laughed and said we are not carrying Spam on this store,” El-Scari says, recalling the planning stages of the business. “And what are we carrying now? Spam. Because many people at some of our elder stops have requested Spam and Vienna sausages, and that’s what we said we would do.”
Rollin’ Grocer stocks plenty of healthy food, too – items like fresh kale, asparagus, strawberries and organic chicken – and a lot of it comes from local producers.
Many customers at Guinotte Manor weren’t interested in those items, however. Some grade school kids, for instance, used their allowances to buy chips or snack cakes.
El-Scari sees no conflict in selling these less-than-healthy foods alongside the healthier options.
For Rollin’ Grocer, food equity they’re providing is more than trucking in fruits and vegetables. It’s offering places like Guinotte Manor the same kinds of choices that people have in other parts of the city.
“People don’t go into Cosentino’s and someone says, ‘Are you going to get those chips? Are you gonna get that Gatorade? Are you gonna drink that soda?’ People don’t do that,” El-Scari says. “And we don’t think that just because it’s a food desert, people need to be told how to eat.”
Health advocates have made a lot of progress reducing food deserts in big coastal cities, but finding solutions in the Midwest has been trickier because cities are often spread out and don’t have the population density to support full-service grocery stores.
Donna Leuchten Nuccio, of the Philadelphia-based community development group The Reinvestment Fund, says that’s why mobile grocery stores that can serve many different neighborhoods are catching on in smaller cities like Cleveland, Tulsa and Chattanooga.
“It may be that a neighborhood or a community wouldn’t be able to support a store on their own, but when that neighborhood is able to combine its purchasing power with a neighborhood across town, we start to see some retail demand and some buying power combined,” Nuccio says.
As with food trucks, the real test for mobile markets is the long game, and that’s where selling junk food might actually play a crucial part.
Lots of grocery stores and corner stores depend on junk food to lure customers, who, it’s hoped, will then buy other items. In other words, for mobile markets to continue bringing healthy foods into food deserts, they may need to sell chips and snack cakes, too.
“When we’re thinking about providing a sustainable business model, it needs to provide the choice and the variety for consumers to be able to purchase everything that they need or the majority of their needs,” Nuccio says. “So that will allow them to keep coming back, instead of making choices to shop in a store where they’re able to get part of their groceries.”
Making a difference
Rollin’ Grocer has only been stopping at Guinotte Manor for a few weeks, but it’s already made a difference
for some residents.
One resident named Angel who uses a walker says it takes her an hour to walk to the nearest grocery store. But since Rollin’ Grocer started making stops near her home, she’s become a regular customer.
On a recent afternoon, she picked up some frozen popcorn shrimp from the truck. Instead of two hours, the trip took about 10 minutes.
Thanks to slow but steady inroads with customers like Angel, El-Scari and her partners say they’re optimistic about the future of Rollin’ Grocer and are already looking at building a second truck.
The plan is to serve even more customers -- whether they’re in the mood for chips, popcorn shrimp or, just possibly, kale.
Alex Smith is a reporter for KCUR, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR