Groceries Go Mobile to Improve Public Health

September 5, 2013

Originally published June 3, 2013

Areas in northwestern New Mexico and in Kansas City have found an innovative means of addressing the public health problem of "food deserts" - areas with little or no access to fresh and affordable healthy foods.

A 33-foot refrigerated trailer called "MoGro" pays weekly visits to five small Native American communities - called pueblos - all of which are at least 30 miles away from the closest supermarkets in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. And in Kansas City's low-income urban core, a bus named "Healthy Harvest Mobile Market" rolls on Tuesdays and Thursdays to several community centers and other stops.

The first-of-its-kind MoGro truck/trailer carries more than 200 items, including many types of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain foods, low-fat dairy products, fish, lean meats and nuts. What you won't find are sugary drinks, potato chips and white bleached flour. They've been banned, along with candy, except for dark chocolate.

MoGro is a comprehensive public health effort to address the extremely high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the pueblos it serves. In addition to healthy foods, the program offers a whole set of ancillary services, including nutrition classes, healthy cooking demonstrations, fitness programs, farmer workshops and technical assistance on school and community garden design. Future plans call for a second refrigerated trailer and service to additional pueblos.

In part, MoGro seeks to break Native Americans' reliance on bleached flour, refined sugar and fried foods - a dependence forced upon them more than a century ago. That's when the federal government gave American Indians rations of lard, sugar and flour while barring them from leaving reservations to hunt and gather.

MoGro was launched by Rick Schnieders and his wife, Beth, in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health (JHCAIH). Schnieders knows plenty about food storage and distribution - he's a former CEO of national food supplier Sysco. Others assisting with MoGro include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Notah Begay III Foundation, La Montanita Co-op and others.

"We believe this MoGro project can be a model project, not only for these native communities, but for the rest of America," says JHCAIH Director Mathu Santosham, MD, MPH. "That's why I'm so excited about this."

An excellent video introduction to MoGro is here and MoGro's website is here.

As a reconstituted city bus, Kansas City's Healthy Harvest Mobile Market is focused primarily on fresh fruit and vegetables, while also offering nutrition education, health screenings, and health literacy information to the urban poor.

The effort was spearheaded by Truman Medical Centers and its non-profit affiliate, the Hospital Hill Economic Development Corp. (HHEDC). Truman CEO John Bluford has long campaigned for greater access to healthy foods in neighborhoods near his two hospitals. He says the mobile market is one way the medical center is "thinking outside the bed" to improve community health.

Supporters of the mobile market include the Healthcare Foundation of Greater Kansas City, Kansas City Power & Light Co., Menorah Legacy Foundation, Metcalf Bank, the area Transportation Authority and several others. The mobile market's Facebook page is here.

Teresa Garza Ruiz, a Jackson County Legislator and Secretary for HHEDC, says the mobile market is only the first step toward the alleviation of food deserts in Kansas City. The next project by the HHEDC will be the construction of an $11.5 million, 35,000-squarefoot grocery store in the urban core on property purchased by the city. Construction could begin as soon as this fall.

"Not only will we have a grocery store providing health options for residents, we expect the grocery store also will be a catalyst for economic development there," says John Wood, assistant city manager and director of neighborhood and housing services in Kansas City, Mo.

The New Mexico pueblos and Kansas City's core are just two examples of the hundreds of food deserts across the U.S. NPR's recent coverage included  this blog and a food desert map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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