This colorful bus parked outside Parkview Gardens, a senior apartment community, is not here to shuttle passengers. It’s a mobile grocery store complete with grains, meats, spices, fruits, and vegetables.
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The Mobile Market is a project of the Wilson foundation, a human services non-profit. In order to address the problem of food deserts — areas where there aren’t any stores that sell fresh produce — the foundation purchased a retired city metro bus and converted it into a mobile grocery store in about nine months.
Although shelves have replaced the seats, some signs remain of the Mobile Market bus’ former life as a metro bus. Some are actual signs: “Do not stand” and “Stop requested” at the front, or “Wait for light, then push door to open” at the exits. Rhonda Wood, 60, shows off a bag of produce.
Some traces of the transformation are subtle: the yellowing, darkened strip lights along the sides and emergency exit hatch on the roof. As part of the retrofitting process, new lights and air conditioning units were installed.
Mike Driscoll, 38, and Cristi Moua, 24, drive and operate the store through 19 locations.
After shopping, Ethel Kelly, 69, pays at the modernized cash register, which is powered by a card scanner, scale, and iPad. Moua explains that the setup makes the process of paying through food-stamp programs such as SNAP or EBT easier.
At the back of the bus, the sponsors of the project are displayed. Each of three sinks has a different purpose: one for hand washing, one for dishwashing and one for washing produce. The space is National Sanitation Foundation-approved to handle food.
Driscoll explains the sinks are rarely used when running the store, and much of cleaning work is handled by volunteers.
A single black generator hidden underneath a shelf runs two refrigerators, two freezers, the air conditioning, the cash register and the lights. The generator was installed to run quietly, and draws from the same supply that powers the engine of the bus. In the winter, the generator also provides the heating, and Driscoll runs it constantly during those months so the fuel doesn’t freeze.
The food comes free from Cub Foods and Hmong American Farmers Association, but restocking is a challenge. Pictured next to Driscoll is the window through which all the goods are fed and then put onto the shelves.
“On Mondays, we drive the bus out to the company and we open this window right here. We just put it up and just feed through the window. It’s huge boxes, must be fifteen pounds, ” Moua said.
Small touches– taken for granted in a brick-and-mortar store– improve the shopping experience: bags and scales for produce, twist ties, and small carts. Other features, such as the spray bottle in lieu of a mister, remind customers they’re shopping on a bus. Wood grabs a bag off the dispenser.
The Twin Cities Mobile Market is making fresh food more accessible, one stop at a time. A second bus is already in the works.