It’s the rare and lucky shopper who gets a warm welcome simply for entering a grocery store. But when you’re shopping at a Twin Cities Mobile Market and Abdifatah Nur is on board, get ready to feel the love.
“You just have to know how to say, ‘Welcome!’ or ‘Thank you,’ ” said the gregarious Nur, a Mobile Market staffer who offers those greetings in seven languages, from Spanish to Arabic to Korean.
“That small thing goes a long way,” he said.
Speaking of small things that go a long way, I’m happy to report the Twin Cities Mobile Market, a retrofitted Metro Transit bus loaded with grocery goodness, expanded in May from one bus to two, and from St. Paul to Minneapolis.
The second bus, chock full of affordable and fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, meat, cheese, bread and more, includes stops in north Minneapolis and Cedar-Riverside — two areas designated as “food deserts” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you’ve never lived in a food desert, and especially if you’ve never heard the term, consider yourself lucky.
The designation means that residents must travel more than a mile to get to a supermarket. Doesn’t sound like much? It is if you’re a senior who no longer drives, or a person with a disability, or someone on a limited income for whom weekly trips to shop by bus or cab add up fast.
Minnesota, sadly and surprisingly, is a leader in food deserts.
In 2016, Wilder Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis reported that our state ranks seventh worst in the country for our share of residents — more than a third of the population — with no grocery store near their homes. Only about 20 percent of Minnesotans get the recommended number of fruits and vegetables daily.
The mobile grocer program was launched in 2014 by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation as a way to fill the gap between food shelves and full-service supermarkets, spokesman Andy Brown said.
The original bus makes 17 stops Tuesdays through Saturdays year-round in St. Paul. The second bus makes 15 stops in St. Paul and Minneapolis, at low-income housing sites, day care centers, churches and community centers.
Supervalu is the food supplier, with financial support provided by Supervalu Foundation. (If you’d like to contribute, Hormel Natural Choice will match any gift to the Mobile Market dollar for dollar up to $25,000 until June 30. Go to twincitiesmobilemarket.org)
Residents are alerted to the bus’ arrival by posters, fliers and resident council meetings. But word of mouth is the best publicity.
Myong Kang stepped onto a bus at the Cedar High Apartments in Minneapolis to buy a big bag of ripe red tomatoes. “It’s nice to come,” said Kang, who works nearby. “I don’t have to go to the grocery.”
Davin Ward works at nearby Augsburg College and lives in north Minneapolis, where healthy food options are few. “It’s good-quality, nutritious food,” he said. “And it’s reasonably priced, unlike my corner market.”
“This is so neat!” said another customer, walking down the narrow aisle past deli meats (a bestseller), several types of beans, flour, sugar, kiwi, bananas, avocados, mushrooms, cucumbers, huge yellow and red onions, even frozen chicken wings.
“This is awesome!” said another.
If a customer is unable to get on the bus due to physical restrictions, staff members are happy to shop for him or her, which is what Nur was doing on a recent stop. As he studied a grocery list and filled up a bag, his customer, seated in a wheelchair, waited patiently on the sidewalk.
“You never know how many people just can’t get to the grocery store,” said the bus’ driver, Keshawn Williams, who also works the register, where customers can pay with cash or credit card or through the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) programs.
“This is one of those very fulfilling jobs,” she said. “The customers love it, and it’s so innovative.”
Mobile Market director Leah Porter confirms that. In a recent survey of 400 customers, fully 89 percent said they buy more fruits and vegetables thanks to the bus, and 84 percent prepare healthier snacks at home.
Food is regularly restocked for freshness, she said. “Marginal” items go into the half-price bin, are donated or become compost.
But the mobile market feeds another need. More than 80 percent of respondents said they feel more connected to their neighborhood by shopping on the bus, Porter noted. An equal percentage say they have met people from their neighborhood as they surveyed the papayas and potatoes.
“It’s a way to bring people out,” she said. “This bus is needed.”