Grocery Shopping: A Burden for Some, a Luxury for Others

Seniors at the Parkway Gardens Senior Apartment Complex spend the afternoon playing cards. Photo by Nicholas Liu
Seniors at the Parkway Gardens Senior Apartment Complex spend the afternoon playing cards.
Photo by Nicholas Liu

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On a steamy day in August, a senior community in one isolated Saint Paul neighborhood is bustling. Here, dozens congregate in the common room. They play cards, distribute plates of cake, and fill plastic cups with root beer for a birthday celebration. They don’t lack for camaraderie at Parkway Gardens. They share one obvious burden: limited access to fresh produce.

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Most meals are scrapped together from processed snacks in a small pantry at the retirement facility. Some rely on the generosity of neighbors, who occasionally bring baked goods. A lucky few travel three blocks to a small convenience store that sells little to no fresh produce.

That is where the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation and their new community outreach program, Twin Cities Mobile Market, comes into play. The Mobile Market, a motorized grocery store that functions out of a repurposed city bus, serves as a bridge between underprivileged Minnesotans and the fresh produce they crave. Five days a week, this farmer’s market on wheels travels around the St. Paul metro-area providing healthy, nutritious pantry staples and cultural products, including Halal goat meat, to 19 different produce-deprived communities, including the neighborhood surrounding Parkway Gardens, known as Dayton’s Bluff.

In addition to being convenient, the service and its products are also affordable, which proves especially helpful for people on fixed incomes. Irma Johnson, 74 has been a resident of Parkway Gardens for over four years, and enjoys the low prices offered on the bus.

“The food they sell is always really fresh and is much cheaper than the food you can get at The Cub or at the local convenience store,” Johnson said.

Before January of this year, when the bus rolled into the small parking lot for the first time, residents had very few options when it came to securing healthy produce, as many are disabled and unable to leave the apartment facility.

Rhonda Wood searches for green bell peppers among the fresh vegetables. Photo by Diana Dominguez
Rhonda Wood searches for green bell peppers among the fresh vegetables.
Photo by Diana Dominguez

Sixty-year-old Rhonda Wood, an avid cook and “foodie,” has gone to the mobile unit every week since the service began. Wood uses the mobile unit to stock up on staples, such as bread, milk, and apples. This Wednesday she was on a mission: to purchase ingredients for one of her favorite recipes, a green quinoa salad. As Wood scoured the shelves for quinoa, examined bell peppers, and ticked items off her list, she raved about the Mobile Market.

“I am so grateful for the Mobile Market and the people who run it,” Wood said. “I can’t remember what I did before. I never want this to stop.”

She suffers from diabetes, and before the service came to her community, she found it challenging to incorporate enough produce into her diet. Now, with the Mobile Market’s weekly stops, she has easy access to fresh food, and exceeds her doctor’s recommended requirements for fruits and vegetables.

Ethel Kelly and Frankie Forrest shop for peaches in the Mobile Market. Photo by Nicholas Liu
Ethel Kelly and Frankie Forrest shop for peaches in the Mobile Market.
Photo by Nicholas Liu

Best friends Ethel Kelly, 69 and Frankie Forrest, 74 are not always able to make the journey to the bus. Wednesday, they walked together, helping each other navigate the sidewalk with the use of a cane and a walker, respectively.

“When we can’t make it to the bus, the volunteers come to the door with a list of food and we tell them what we want and then they bring our food to us,” Forrest said. “That helps a lot because a lot of us are in wheelchairs.”

The Mobile Market transformed the lives and health of thousands of community members. In the next year, the organization hopes to incorporate a second bus and reach more struggling neighborhoods. To date, the only consistently received customer complain is that shirts and shoes are required on the bus.